From the moment Barack Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004, he has enjoyed a reputation as a politician with a claim to the high ground.
Now, for the first time in his presidency, even supporters are questioning whether his administration abused the offices of government for political gain.
“Those who are found to have been responsible for this betrayal of public trust should be fired,” Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said of revelations that Internal Revenue Service workers targeted Republican-leaning advocacy groups for extra scrutiny.
The president announced yesterday that Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew had asked for and received the resignation of acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller.
“My main concern is fixing the problem,” Obama said at a news conference today. “And we began that process yesterday by asking and accepting the resignation of the acting director there.”
The president said he won’t appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS action because the Justice Department and Congress are already conducting probes.
“We’re gonna make sure that we identify any structural or management issues to prevent something like this from happening again,” he said.
The confluence of the tax agency’s actions against small-government Tea Party groups, the Justice Department seizure of telephone records of reporters and editors of the Associated Press and the confusing administration responses to the deadly raid last year on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya has set in motion a now-familiar Washington cycle of hearings, talk of crisis and calls for resignations.
Yet it’s a terrain that Republicans, particularly in the U.S. House, haven’t shown deftness at maneuvering, and overreach can produce unexpected consequences, including driving support toward the president.
“He’s not Richard Nixon,” said John Feehery, a Republican consultant and aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois. “He doesn’t look guilty. And I think that’s a tremendous advantage.”
Republican-leaning columnist Charles Krauthammer, appearing on Fox News, cautioned the party’s elected officials to avoid throwing around threats of impeachment, as Texas Representative Steve Stockman has done, and let facts drive public opinion.
“It feeds the narrative of the other side that it’s only a political event” by promoting impeachment prematurely, Krauthammer said. “It is not.”
Obama, after several days of criticism, stepped out yesterday to play offense, releasing internal e-mails regarding the Libya attack response, announcing support of a new law to protect journalists and accepting Miller’s resignation. An administration official who requested anonymity to discuss personnel matters said today that Obama also expects to appoint a new acting IRS commissioner this week.
It combined for the type of action that may help stabilize Obama’s standing as Congress shifts to its administration oversight role.
“They have to act big and bold to stop the bleeding,” said Mike Murphy, a California-based Republican consultant, said of Obama and his aides. “This is the first step. Tough, honest, no-spin investigation is next step.”
The president, in confronting second-term errors that may grow to greater proportions, is joining a long roster of predecessors.
Nixon was forced to resign in his second term after the Watergate scandal, which surfaced after burglars with White House ties were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington. President Ronald Reagan’s administration was beset by the Iran-Contra affair, in which officials were caught selling arms to Iran in an attempt to free hostages in Lebanon.
President Bill Clinton was impeached after making false statements about his relationship with a White House intern. And President George W. Bush’s White House was forced to justify its decision to use harsh interrogation techniques against prisoners seized after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and the Washington area.
In each of those cases, lawmakers in Congress from the opposition party used their perches in committee rooms before banks of television cameras to keep the storylines in the news and the president in the worst light.
It’s a strategy the current House Republican caucus has tried to implement without much success. Weeks before the 2012 November election, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform convened to draw attention to the security failures that led to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that caused the deaths of four Americans.
Less than a month later, Obama won re-election, defeating Republican Mitt Romney 51.1 percent to 47.2 percent in the popular vote and winning almost all of the most competitive states.
Chris Lehane, a California-based Democratic strategist who served in the Clinton White House during its second-term struggles, said Obama’s proactive moves on all three fronts dogging him likely will help him limit the damage to his presidency.
It “suggests that the White House appreciates the imperative of putting all the information out that it controls in one fell swoop, to avoid the drip, drip, drip dynamic,” he said.
A benefit for Obama throughout his career has been that even those who oppose his policies and politics don’t necessarily dislike him.
“That has been a key point of his presidency, especially measured by the likability scores he has gotten even from the people who disagree” with him on issues, said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas in Austin.