Scandals Threaten to Derail Obama’s Agenda

Scandals Threaten to Derail Obama’s Agenda

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It’s only Tuesday, but it has already been a very bad week for President Barack Obama. It’s been so bad that some think it could actually define his presidency and derail any hope of advancing his second-term agenda.

Late last week, the White House was reeling from the Benghazi talking points controversy. The administration hardly had time to construct a response when news broke that the Internal Revenue Service had been targeting conservative and Tea Party groups. As the administration struggled to get a handle on each of those issues early this week, the Associated Press revealed that the Justice Department had secretly obtained the telephone records of its journalists in an attempt to plug a security leak.   

It’s quite possible the latter two scandals will sweep Benghazi off the Republican agenda, or make it a footnote to a series of missteps. But the other two issues have staying power. The IRS controversy plays directly into Republican suspicions that the Obama administration is out to get them. 

Lawmakers on the right were in no mood to compromise with the president before the news broke. Now that there is proof that the groups that represent their core constituency have been targeted, they’re out for blood.

“I will not rest until the full scope of the IRS’s corruption is uncovered, the guilty parties are held accountable, and actions are taken to ensure this never happens again,” Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., said yesterday. She’s a member of the House Ways and Means Committee that will hold hearings on the IRS scandal later this week.

But they’re not the only ones worried about the IRS scandal.  Democrats and the public don’t like the idea that a federal agency can unfairly target one group for their political beliefs.  It’s unconstitutional, and it’s against the law.

Using the IRS as a weapon against political opponents is not new--it was one of the tactics Richard Nixon used against his opponents. “’The official purpose, as described by the White House Counsel's Office, was to ‘screw’ Nixon's political enemies, by means of tax audits from the Internal Revenue Service, and by manipulating "grant availability, federal contracts, litigation, prosecution, etc.’” In a memorandum from John Dean to Lawrence Higby (August 16, 1971 - Wikipedia.  And when George W. Bush was president, the IRS audited the NAACP over “improper political activity” because they distributed anti Bush information during their annual conference.  
The AP story further erodes the trust between the White House and the press. Many have accused the D.C. press corps of having a cozy relationship with the White House, even though they’ve had limited access to the president. 

Now that the White House is known to be spying on the press, his administration may see the press feed the scandal beast.

All of this is also likely to erode the public trust. Obama was elected in 2008 – and reelected last year – with a message that he was in Washington to end “politics as usual.” 

To be clear, Obama’s fortunes could change quickly – this is Washington, after all. And a natural disaster like Superstorm Sandy or a terrorist attack like the Boston bombings could focus the public’s and the press’s attention elsewhere – so the current scandals could all fade away, at least until the next election when the video clips appear in ads.

Short of a game-changing event, the scandals are likely to plague Obama for some months to come, if not for the rest of his second term. We’re entering a slow summer period here in Washington, when news grows scarce and it’s difficult for major issues to gain real traction. For political opponents of the president and his agenda, the IRS and AP scandals are gifts that could keep on giving until September and beyond.

Even the signature action of his administration – health care reform – could be at risk because of the scandals.

So, forget immigration reform. Forget gun control. Forget any of the issues Obama said he wanted to address in his second term. His remaining years in office might be spent proving his administration is not plagued by scandal and corruption.

Obama has often said the president he most admires is Abraham Lincoln. In the next three years, he has to win back the public trust – or his name might be associated with a president who stood against all that Lincoln stood for.