May 15, 2013

Obama's second term: Are distractions a perfect storm?

Analysis: Republicans are invigorated as the White House struggles to control administration missteps.

Charles Babington and Julie Pace / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

U.S. President Obama steps off stage after speaking at Democratic Party fundraiser at Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York
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President Obama steps off stage after speaking at a Democratic Party fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York on Monday. A series of missteps is threatening to derail Obama’s agenda for his second term.


Hillary Rodham Clinton -- the secretary of state at the time, and a possible presidential candidate in 2016 -- is the target of many GOP accusations.

Despite the noisy controversies, White House advisers tamped down suggestions that Obama would make any sudden moves, such as firing top officials or shaking up his team. In a Tuesday night statement on the inspector general's IRS report, Obama said he expected those responsible to be held "accountable" though he did not specify what that should entail.

On all three matters, the White House Tuesday steered blame to other administration agencies. The disputed Benghazi talking points, advisers said, were chiefly the CIA's work. In discussing the IRS controversy, the White House has emphasized the agency's independent status. And Obama's spokesman has deflected all questions about AP phone records to the Justice Department, saying that the president and his aides didn't know about the case until they read press reports Monday. Asked why Obama couldn't simply ask the attorney general about the Justice Department subpoenas, Carney said, "A great deal prevents the president from doing that. It would be wholly inappropriate for the president to involve himself in a criminal investigation that ... involves leaks of information from the administration."

The White House also tried to change the narrative on Benghazi. Carney accused congressional Republicans of giving a misleading description of an email from top Obama aide Ben Rhodes in order to make it look like the White House was supportive of efforts to downplay the prospect that the Benghazi attack was an act of terror.

"They decided to fabricate portions of an email and make up portions of an email in order to fit a political narrative," Carney said.

White House officials said Obama plans to press his second-term agenda as planned, but the contentious issues are complicating that effort. Amid new revelations about Benghazi and the IRS, Obama's attempts last Friday to highlight the implementation of key components of the health care law -- his first term's signature accomplishment -- were largely ignored.

Republican consultant John Feehery says the IRS and Benghazi controversies undercut the president's argument for increasing the government's role in health care and almost everything else. They undermine the notion, he said, "that government is trustworthy and can fix problems."

However, the biggest item now before Congress -- whether to rewrite the nation's immigration laws and provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of people here illegally -- may be barely touched by the hubbub. Many Republican leaders say the GOP must embrace immigration revisions to improve the party's weak standing with Hispanic voters, a fast-growing constituency. Denying Obama a victory on immigration, they say, could do even more damage to Republicans.

On other issues, including the never-ending partisan dispute over deficit spending, the White House's preoccupation with potential scandals may give Republicans a greater sense of confidence and support.

The claim of an IRS bias against conservative groups is what worries Democrats like Bennett most. The White House counsel's office was alerted about the inspector general investigation into the IRS on April 22, but did not inform the president, officials said.

Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist, said Republicans will try to use investigations into the IRS actions, Benghazi and possibly the AP phone records "to run out the clock on the president's second term."

"The political risk of running endless congressional investigations is relatively minimal compared to the risk of opposing immigration reform, gun control and some of the other issues that have broad bipartisan support," McMahon said.


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