WASHINGTON — Faced with a trio of controversies, President Barack Obama is trying to halt a perception spreading among both White House opponents and allies that he has been passive and disengaged as unexpected developments consume his second term.
The new strategy, underscored in a flurry of new White House actions, signals an Obama team anxious to regain control amid controversies that have emboldened Republicans and threatened to plunge the president’s second term into a steady stream of congressional investigations.
On Wednesday, Obama released a trove of documents related to the Benghazi attacks amid pressure from Republicans. He asked Congress to revive a media shield law that would protect journalists from having to reveal information, a step seen as a response to the Justice Department’s widely criticized subpoenas of phone records from reporters and editors at The Associated Press. And he forced the resignation of the top official at the Internal Revenue Service after the agency targeted conservative political groups.
“Americans have a right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it,” Obama said of the IRS actions. “I will not tolerate this kind of behavior at any agency, but especially at the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives.”
The president, seeking to have a more robust profile on the controversies, also said he would take questions from reporters Thursday at a previously scheduled news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And Obama is expected to nominate a new acting IRS commissioner this week to replace Steven Miller, who resigned Wednesday.
The president addressed the IRS controversy on Monday, but his measured words left many unsatisfied, particularly given that he had waited three days to address the developments. He also repeatedly asserted that he was waiting to find out if the reports were accurate, even though top IRS officials had already acknowledged the controversial actions.
Adding to the narrative of a passive president were White House efforts to distance Obama from the IRS scandal, as well as revelations that the Justice Department had secretly obtained work and personal phone records of AP journalists. In both cases, the White House insisted the president had no prior knowledge of the events and learned about the matters as the general public did — from news reports.
Obama’s cautious response, combined with his lack of awareness about controversies brewing within his administration, opened him to criticism from his Republican foes.
“If Obama really learned about the latest IRS and AP secret subpoena scandals in the news, who exactly is running the ship at the White House?” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.
But in a worrisome sign for the White House, some Democrats also criticized the president for not being more aggressive in responding to trouble within the government.
Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former White House press secretary, said the president should have appointed a bipartisan commission of former IRS officials to look into the issue of targeting political organizations. And Gibbs gently chided his former boss for using passive language when he first addressed the political targeting during a White House news conference Monday.
“I think they would have a much better way of talking about this story rather than simply kind of landing on the, ‘Well, if this happened, then we’ll look at it’,” Gibbs said on MSNBC.
The fresh pair of controversies coincided with a resurgence in the GOP-led investigation into the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Congressional Republicans launched another round of hearings on the attacks last week. And on Friday, a congressional official disclosed details of emails among administration officials that resulted in talking points, used to publicly discuss the deadly incident, being revised to downplay the prospect that the attacks were an act of terror.
Obama aides insisted the emails were either taken out of context or provided no new information, but they resisted pressure to make the emails public for five days before finally disclosing them to reporters Wednesday. The emails revealed that then-CIA Director David Petraeus disagreed with the final talking points, despite the White House’s insistence that the intelligence agency had final say over the statements.
The White House has publicly defended its handling of the controversies. Obama spokesman Jay Carney has insisted it would be “wholly inappropriate” for the president, in the case of the Justice Department matter, to weigh in on an active investigation, and in the case of the IRS controversy, to insert himself in the actions of an independent agency.
However, legal scholar Jonathan Turley disputed those assertions, saying there is no legal reason a president would be precluded from learning about the investigations before the public did or from commenting on them, at least broadly.
“These comments treat the president like he’s the bubble boy,” said Turley, a law professor at George Washington University.
David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime adviser, acknowledged the White House could have acted more aggressively in “the interest of stagecraft.” But he insisted that the president’s handling of the matters will ultimately be vindicated.
“One virtue he has is that he takes a long-range view,” he said. “It’s easy to get whipped up by the frenzy, but it’s responsible to react to the facts. It has short-term liabilities, but in the long-run, it’s a quality you want in a president.”