There is a cliché in presidential politics of a second-term curse. Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica, were all second-term debacles. And here is a piece I wrote during George W. Bush’s second-term woes. (Remember Scooter Libby? Harriet Miers? Katrina?)
Obama now faces three firestorms. Some Republicans are already talking impeachment.
First, the Obama administration came under fire yet again last week over last September’s deadly attacks on a consulate in Benghazi, Libya. A U.S. diplomat who worked in Benghazi told Congress he was demoted after questioning the administration’s explanations of what happened. He also said he was dressed down by the chief of staff to Hillary Clinton after he met with a Republican congressman in Libya without a State department lawyer present. In addition, there is controversy over the motivation of administration officials who heavily rewrote talking points about the attacks to exclude mention of terrorist groups. The administrations says the facts about the attacks weren’t yet clear at the time; critics say they were trying to protect Obama’s image. So far Clinton has not been personally implicated, but poll suggest she is by far the leading Democratic presidential contender in 2016, so Republicans have every incentive to continue to investigate the issue and fan flames of controversy.
Next came news that the IRS was singling out Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny and audits when they applied for non-profit status. Republicans were furious. Obama himself called the actions “outrageous.” A criminal investigation has been launched. House Speaker John Boehner is already calling for “jail time.” The controversy comes at time when campaign finance watchdogs have been calling on the IRS to take a closer look at advocacy groups that apply for non-profit social-welfare groups status –- which allows them to accept unlimited dollars from anonymous donors. Watchdog worry that they are becoming vehicles for funneling big money into politics and subverting campaign finance laws. These include conservative groups, as well as a recent group created by former Obama aides to advocate for his agenda, called Organizing for Action. In the course of researching this story on OFA, I spoke with Public Citizen’s campaign finance lobbyist, Craig Holman, who said the IRS was afraid of going after groups who register as non-political groups but then use their unregulated donations to run political ads or support candidates:
“We’ve gone through two election cycles in which non-profits have been extensively abused, and the IRS hasn’t taken action against a single one. The IRS is afraid of political forces. If you or I try not paying our taxes, they’ll be right on us. When it comes to political insiders breaking Internal Revenue Code, the IRS is frightened of [taking action.]”
It appears that the IRS was not afraid to go after small Tea Party groups. But we have yet to hear of what scrutiny they applied to bigger players. Holman says the IRS should have been even-handed in its work. But he fears the result of the Tea Party controversy will be that they will stay away from scrutinizing these groups altogether.
“This controversy means they will never enforce the tax code,” he told CNN. “We are going to see the IRS hide.”
And a third controversy erupted with news that Obama’s Department of Justice had seized telephone records of several offices of the Associated Press as part of an investigation into a national security leak. The details are dramatic: all incoming and outgoing phone calls made by reporters from 20 phone numbers in May and June of 2012 are now known to the government. The AP’s sources on all kinds of subjects had have been revealed. The news organization was notified only after the fact, so it had no opportunity to contest the seizure in court. Personal cell phone records of reporters were also turned over to the government. The move came in the broader context of the Obama administration’s record of prosecuting more national security leaks to journalists than all past administration’s combined. (One government official was prosecuted under George W. Bush for leaking; under Obama, there have already been six leak-related prosecutions.) Although some Republicans are now expressing outrage, some Senate Republicans had long been calling for a tougher crackdown on national security leaks.
It’s unclear whether this is a result of a deliberate Obama policy of aggressive prosecution or whether technology has simply made it easier for investigators to finger sources and bring indictments. In any case, it has provided Obama with an angry new adversary: the working press.
Curse or not, the investigations and recriminations are consuming Washington, making it harder for Obama to push his own agenda. And by going after the press, he’s going to have a very hard time changing the headlines and the subject.