WASHINGTON — President Obama tried to swat down a pair of brewing controversies Monday, denouncing as “outrageous” the targeting of conservative political groups by the Internal Revenue Service but angrily denying any administration cover-up after last year’s deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
Simultaneous investigations — and demands by Republicans for more — have put the White House on the defensive, emboldened GOP lawmakers and threatened to overtake a second-term Obama agenda already off to a rocky start.
During a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, the normally even-keeled Obama appeared agitated over the resurgent investigation into the September attack at a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. He dismissed the Republican-driven effort as a “sideshow” that dishonors the four Americans who were killed, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
“There’s no there there,” Obama declared in his first public comments since GOP lawmakers launched new hearings on the matter. “The fact that this keeps on getting churned up, frankly, has a whole lot to do with political motivations.”
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Seeking to keep another controversy from spinning out of control, the president rebuked the IRS for scrutinizing the tax-exempt status of groups with conservative titles such as “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names. Those responsible, Obama said, must be held “fully accountable.”
“I’ve got no patience with it,” he added. “I will not tolerate it and we will find out exactly what happened.”
There was a guiding principle early in Obama’s first term that in Washington it is always better to be pitching than catching.
The stimulus bill, the bank- and auto-industry bailouts, Wall Street regulation, health-care legislation, Muslim outreach abroad — the first two years featured Obama as pitcher.
But now, as the clearly frustrated president revealed Monday, Obama finds himself in the position of catcher.
Political power ebbs more quickly for a second-term president, who usually has only until the next midterm elections to work his will in Washington. After setbacks on gun-control legislation and fiscal negotiations, that time is being absorbed by issues at the edges of Obama’s ability to control.
“You start thinking about history and start thinking in longer sweeps of time,” Obama said Monday during a fundraising event at the New York City home of film producer Harvey Weinstein. “And you start saying to yourself, the 3½ years you’ve got is not a lot.”
“There is a pattern of modern second terms that presidents seem to be susceptible to difficulty,” said David Kennedy, a presidential historian at Stanford University.
Surfacing last week were edited versions of the administration’s talking points produced for congressional leaders and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice within a week of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. government compound in Benghazi.
The various versions revealed a contest between the State Department and the CIA — whose outposts in Benghazi were attacked — over which would have more influence in telling what transpired on the ground.
“The whole issue of talking points throughout this process has been a sideshow,” Obama said Monday. “The whole thing defies logic, and the fact that this keeps getting churned out frankly has a lot to do with political motivations.”
The president took a strikingly different tone about the other controversy that is riveting attention in the nation’s capital: the revelation that IRS employees targeted conservative groups for audits.
The IRS has apologized for what it said was “inappropriate” targeting of conservative political groups. The agency blamed low-level employees, saying no high-level officials were aware.
But a draft of an inspector general’s report obtained by the AP says senior IRS officials knew agents were targeting tea-party groups as early as 2011.
The Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration is expected to release the final report this week after a yearlong investigation.
Obama said he learned about those allegations from news-media reports Friday. He repeatedly called the charges “outrageous,” if true, and said that anyone found to be guilty of such actions should be held accountable.
Don Stewart, a top aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Obama’s problem is that he is having to put out too many fires — “really big fires,” he said.
“If you’re focusing so much of your time on fixing problems that already exist, you’re not creating new things that you want to do,” Stewart said.
At the Monday fundraiser, Obama lamented the enduring political culture in Washington that he campaigned to change in 2008.
He also cautioned his Republican opponents, energized again by crisis and the seeds of scandal, that they face another election in two years.
“My intentions over the next 3 ½ years are to govern,” Obama said. “If there are folks who are more interested in winning elections than they are thinking about the next generation, then I want to make sure there are consequences to that.”
Neither issue appears to be going away any time soon.
On Monday, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked authors of an independent government review into the Benghazi attack to meet privately with committee investigators.
And the House Ways and Means Committee said it plans to hold a hearing on the IRS matter on Friday.
The two controversies are the latest in a series of unexpected challenges that have consumed the White House since Obama began his second term in January.
Among the others: the Boston Marathon bombings, Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons and fresh nuclear provocations from North Korea.
It’s hardly the start Obama’s team envisioned after he solidly won re-election in November. The White House had hoped to achieve an early victory on immigration overhaul, make another run at a sweeping deficit- reduction deal, and perhaps take a stab at tackling climate change.
But those plans were upended even before Obama’s inauguration, when the horrific December massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six adults in Newtown, Conn., thrust gun control to the forefront of Obama’s domestic agenda. That legislative effort failed on Capitol Hill last month, leaving Obama with a political defeat and giving critics of immigration reform more time to organize their opposition.
Obama still has an opportunity to reverse course and claim a big second-term victory if immigration changes can be approved. Draft legislation being debated in the Senate has bipartisan support, and Republicans have a political incentive to back an overhaul given the growing political power of Hispanic voters, who voted overwhelmingly Democratic in 2012.
For the White House, the challenge will be to keep Capitol Hill focused on immigration and other legislative priorities, not a persistent cycle of investigations.
“The American people want Washington to focus on the issues that matter most to them,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday. “The imperative for getting things done still exists.”
Compiled from The Associated Press, The Washington Post and The New York Times