The convergence of three public relations quagmires on President Barack Obama’s watch has led to a media and political storm that will make it much harder for the president to achieve his second-term agenda -- or will it?
Obama has about a year and a half or less to get his pet projects -- comprehensive immigration reform and some type of gun control -- through Congress before becoming a lame duck. And with the 2014 midterms fast approaching, it would be in the president’s best interest to take control of the narrative before the election year begins.
On the burner right now is the matter of the Benghazi embassy attack, an issue House Republicans have been trying for eight months to use to cripple Obama on foreign relations matters. Then there is the Internal Revenue Service flap over the agency's use of “inappropriate criteria” to identify and target tea party and other conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status between 2010 and 2012. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration released its audit of the revenue agency on Wednesday, in which it found that “ineffective management” allowed the improper practice to continue for 18 months. In addition, IRS employees apparently requested unnecessary information about donors and political affiliation from the nonprofits. Besides the political motives supposed by some, the practices also led to processing delays for certain applications.
Finally, the Justice Department is currently butting heads with the Associated Press for its subpoena of the telephone records of journalists working with the news agency, as part of an investigation into the Obama administration’s leaks.
At the moment, nothing links Obama directly to these incidents other than the actions of his administration reflecting upon him. All three incidents give Republicans ammunition to further investigate for executive overreach and try to impugn the president’s credibility.
“What it will do is distract Washington, and that’s the bigger problem for him,” said Matt Bennett, a Democratic strategist and senior vice president at the public policy think tank Third Way.
Bennett, who sees Benghazi as more of a “made-up partisan witch-hunt” that will likely continue as long as Republicans control the House, said while the other two scandals are problems, they won’t touch the president or get anywhere near the White House.
“So these are no scandals in the sense that the president [would] need to worry about his legacy or his future,” he said. But the distraction is problematic, he asserts: "The time is short and the agenda items are many. It was already a very, very difficult task to pass anything, including immigration in the House. Given that he was already facing such a tough uphill battle to get things done, anything that makes it tougher still is a problem.”
Just how much of a problem depends on what type of lens you are looking through.
From the perspective of David Selig, a federal tax practitioner with Selig & Associates Inc. in New York, the IRS’ admission to singling out particular groups of people is particularly worrying.
“The presumption is a law-abiding segment of our society and you are holding them to a standard and scrutinizing them to a level that you’re not holding other participants in the same forum as,” Selig said.
On the surface, the IRS firestorm is reminiscent of when President Richard Nixon tried to use the government agency as a political tool against his adversaries -- real or perceived.
Obama might not have created his own Nixonian enemies list, but that such discrimination happened during his administration makes him accountable.
“I would certainly say he’s been a beneficiary of whatever efforts have been exerted,” Selig said. “It opens up the door. It is very similar to attacking an individual and proving that that individual can be attacked.
“It may seem hunky-dory to people who don’t mind because perhaps they don’t like the efforts or the works of the various groups that have been closely scrutinized,” he added. “But this could all change the coming year and I’m sure they would not like it. What we need is a level playing field and we don’t want a chilling effect on various organizations. We want, ideally, free and untrammeled speech.”
For Republicans, this is an opportunity to put Obama on the defensive for a change.
Republican strategist Robert Haus contends the "one-two-three smack" of Benghazi, the IRS and the AP is just devastating for the president and the administration.
“They have their own individual lines of trouble for the administration, but collectively it has just been a serious bad couple of weeks for the president,” Haus said. “I don’t know if he can sort of regain his momentum. I would have to assume that his legislative agenda is all but stalled.”
Haus, who is vice president of public affairs at PolicyWorks, an Iowa-based firm dealing with government and public affairs issues, sees an opportunity here for Republicans to prove they are leaders.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., will hold a hearing on the IRS’ special targeting of conservative groups on Friday. Camp said he finds it hard to believe that higher-ups at the IRS knew of the special scrutiny applied to tea party groups but didn’t inform Congress.
Republicans are hoping to expose more details on the issue. And if the old adage that knowledge is power is true, then the GOP could use that to its advantage to strike.
“Politics abhors a vacuum, and as the administration sort of stumbles across any one of these various lanes, it gives the Republican leadership and the Republican Party great opportunities to get something done,” Haus said. “If [Republicans] just stand in opposition to everything and cross arms across their chest and say, ‘No, no, no,’ we will not grow as a party nor will we prove to people that we’ve got the capacity to lead in the future. I think we have a tremendous opportunity here to solve problems, to really get to the bottom of things and to be constructive and prove our leadership capacity.”
The GOP shouldn't overplay its hand, but Bennett suspects someone will.
“They could try to impeach him,” he said. “They could do stupid things and someone probably will because there are a lot of not very strategic thinkers in the Republican House caucus. So that’s one danger.”
“The benefit to them is that it knocks Obama off message and off stride,” he added. “That makes it more difficult for him to move his agenda. And if their purpose in life as they’ve said is to thwart the Obama agenda, well then this is helpful to that. But I don’t think that this is going to change the calculus in any congressional race that will be run 18 months from now, and I don’t think that it will change Republican approval rating.”
Bennett believes that a dropping tide drops all boats.
“I don’t think it’s very good for anyone in Washington for the public to become even more disillusioned with things going on here,” he said.