White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday that the IRS, Justice Department and Benghazi controversies don’t matter because the American public doesn’t care.
“These are the things that the American people expect their leaders to be focused on,” Carney said at his daily briefing, referring to issues such as immigration and gun control. “I'm not saying these other things aren't important…but [the president] is focused on the agenda that's focused on the middle class and building the economy.”
In other words, President Obama’s top mouthpiece argued Wednesday that voters are largely indifferent to potential abuses of power by the federal government.
Not so fast.
Questions still linger about what exactly the White House knew in each of these scandals. By taking an aloof and condescending tone, the Obama administration has become its own worst enemy. They have responded to new problems raised in each of these incidents with a detached passivity, only compounding congressional Republican fury and public intrigue.
Obama himself seemed to recognize this yesterday afternoon by taking the administration’s first proactive step on the IRS scandal: having Treasury Secretary Jack Lew fire the agency’s acting director Steven Miller. The president pledged to cooperate with Congress to ensure the IRS cannot repeat its selective pursuit of Tea Party-based political groups.
“I am angry about it,” Obama said. “We’re going to put in place new safeguards.”
This will not appease congressional Republicans.
"My question isn't about who's going to resign—my question is who is going to jail over this scandal,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Oh., said before the president’s announcement.
But that same candor expressed Wednesday by Obama has yet to spread through the rest of his administration.
While Carney dodged and weaved through his interrogation by the White House press corps on Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder claimed to have no insights into why the Justice Department seizing the phone records of Associated Press journalists who wrote about a foiled terrorist attack in Yemen.
”I do not know with regard to this particular case why that was or was not done,” Holder told the House Judiciary Committee.
The attorney general recused himself from the case after the FBI interviewed him in connection with the matter. This response may seem reasonable to sticklers for standard procedure, but it strikes many Republicans as a shirking of responsibility.
Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., complained, “Saying I can’t comment because of an ongoing investigation has kind of become the political Fifth Amendment for this administration.”
Holder lashed out when Rep. Darrell Issa tried to grill him on a separate matter about Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights and Obama’s pick for Labor Secretary.
The California Republican played a telephone voice recording of Perez and implied that the exchange represented a quid pro quo in which a plaintiff would be awarded grant money if it dropped a potentially Supreme Court-bound case.
The enraged attorney general said the way Issa conducts himself is “unacceptable and it is shameful.”
The administration has entered a defensive crouch, unwilling or unable to provide the level of transparency it once identified as its brand.
On the deaths of four U.S. officials last year in a terrorist raid in Benghazi, Libya, the White House has yet to satisfy the requests of House Republicans and the media. It released on Wednesday a series of emails that led to UN Ambassador Susan Rice mischaracterizing the attack in TV interviews as a spontaneous riot. An earlier release might have quelled suspicions that have been brewing for eight months, but the emails did confirm the 12 revisions that scrubbed any reference to a terrorist attack in the official “talking points.”
The IRS said that two “rogue” employees targeted Tea Party-themed groups applying for nonprofit status, after an inspector general’s audit released Tuesday said there was no “outside” involvement that caused these organizations to be targeted. Holder has announced an FBI investigation of the IRS incident.
THE PRESS CIRCLES THE WAGONS
In a paradoxical response to the Justice Department pursuing journalists who obtained classified information, Carney has touted Obama’s support for a media shield law. (If this is the president’s idea of transparency, reporters can see right through it--they view it as a sop to keep them in line.) Of course, the presumed goal in the seizure of AP records is to prosecute the government officials who leaked secret information about the prevention of a terrorist plot in Yemen.
Even if the public does care more about economic policy, Washington has a low bandwidth and each of these controversies subtracts from the amount of time devoted to other issues. The ripple effects could be more devastating to the administration’s agenda than the eventual details of what happened in each incident.
Brian Gardner, senior vice president of Washington research at the investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, said in a client note Wednesday that reaching a deal on the debt ceiling and budget just became much more complicated.
“These controversies can have two main consequences: 1) a weakened president who has a tough time rallying his party and is not feared by the Republicans; and 2) even greater distrust between the two sides,” Gardner wrote. “On the latter, any goodwill that has been established through dinners between President Obama and Republican senators could evaporate quickly, in our view.”
RELATED: SCANDALS THREATEN TO DERAIL OBAMA’S AGENDA
For Holder, he must now grapple with the weight of the AP probe and the earlier inquiries into the botched “Fast and Furious” sting operation that equipped Mexican drug cartels with more than 1,000 unrecovered firearms.
However, the attorney general has the confidence of the president. This has enabled him to withstand harsh congressional inquiries without his job being on the line, said Mark Corallo, who was the Justice Department’s public affairs director from 2002 to 2005 during George W. Bush’s presidency.
“I hate to draw attention to the past administration,” Corallo said. “But in the second term when Alberto Gonzalez was attorney general, you had several scandals. He survived because he was a close friend of the president. Holder survives because he is a close friend of the president.”
The White House is betting that these controversies won’t catch on with voters. And according to recent polling, they might be right for the moment. Noted pollster Charlie Cook has argued as these scandals have erupted, Obama’s approval numbers are consistent, hovering around 50 percent.
But as Congress begins to investigate each of the scandals, there’s a growing chance that the public will grow upset with the administration’s laissez faire attitude.
At the very least, the scandals and the official response reveal a poorly managed administration where top-ranking officials claim they only hear of wrongdoing by reading the news. It’s unclear just how much authority Obama wields over the executive branch that constitutionally is under his control.