Albert R. Hunt / President Obama will have to get much more proactive if he wants to resuce his second term

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

Here's the White House view of the current trilogy of so-called scandals: Republicans are trying to destroy President Barack Obama's second term by magnifying bureaucratic miscues and distorting policy realities. This isn't without some merit.

On none of these issues -- the deadly debacle at the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya, the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups, or the Justice Department's secret and sweeping seizure of Associated Press phone records in an anti-leaks case -- is there any suggestion of wrongdoing by Mr. Obama himself.

Republicans, ranging from the usually sensible South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham to Darrell Issa, the gun- slinging chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, are playing politics.

Nevertheless, the controversies are undermining the president; his slow, reactive, alternately passive and cavalier responses are playing into critics' hands. Experienced Democrats, outside the White House, want the president to be more proactive, assertive and forthright to salvage his second term. Among the bolder actions they want him to consider:

• Appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS transgressions. Tap a knowledgeable outsider of the agency (say, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill) to quickly assemble a small staff to supplement career Justice Department investigators, with a target of a full report by Oct. 20. These findings, unlike an inquiry under Attorney General Eric Holder, would have credibility.

• Accept Eric Holder's resignation. A favorite target of Republicans, the attorney general now has few fans among prominent Democrats. Given his record, his departure would be important substantively as well as symbolically.

• Do not make U.N. ambassador Susan Rice head of the National Security Council later this year. She isn't responsible for Benghazi and has been unfairly pilloried by critics. Still, in her five network television appearances immediately after the tragedy, she displayed poor judgment. While head of the NSC isn't a post requiring Senate confirmation, appointing Rice would reignite the firestorm in this largely faux scandal.

It's easy to understand the administration's complaints that many of the salient facts in these controversies are overlooked. It's a canard to say Benghazi is a classic case of the cover-up being worse than the crime. There was no crime. There were inexcusable security inadequacies in Libya. Once the attack began, there was no way U.S. forces could have prevented those tragic murders, asserts, among others, Bob Gates, defense secretary under Presidents George W. Bush and Mr. Obama.

The surreptitious subpoena of AP phone records is outrageous. It reflects Mr. Obama's obsession with preventing leaks; his Justice Department has prosecuted more whistle-blowers, including journalists, than former attorneys general John Mitchell, Ed Meese and John Ashcroft combined. Going back to Richard Nixon, such obsessions invariably produce more problems than benefits. Yet congressional Republicans were the driving force for the leak investigations.

There is no defense for America's tax agency targeting particular groups. Still, it's also true that the tax status of many of these groups, on the left and on the right, should be scrutinized, as many may falsely claim their purpose is to promote social welfare, not politics. If their tax status is questionable, the IRS has to ask political questions.

There are decided downsides to taking any of these actions. Outside counsels notoriously spin out of control and outlast their purpose. If Mr. Holder is pushed out, the White House would face an ugly confirmation battle over his successor.

Forceful action, however, is the only way the president can counter the steady partisan assaults and get back to talking about his agenda: immigration, implementing the Affordable Care Act, fiscal fairness and background checks for purchasing guns.

The trade-offs aren't impossible. Outside counsel can act expeditiously; in the 1980s, the legendary Washington lawyer Jake Stein took less than six months to investigate Attorney General-designate Ed Meese. If the misdeeds at the IRS are limited to relatively low-level bureaucrats, such an inquiry should take even less time.

As for replacing the attorney general, Mr. Obama might have to search for a fair-minded, moderate Republican. No White House wants an attorney general of the opposite party, but that would be better than the status quo.

As for Ms. Rice, anything that adds fuel to the phony Benghazi clamor is a political and policy distraction.

When it comes to the leaks, the president should be sobered by an interesting new book, "Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles." The author, James Goodale, served as counsel to the New York Times during the famous 1971 Pentagon Papers case involving Nixon's attempts to censor the press. "In many respects" on press issues, Mr. Goodale writes, "President Obama is no better than Nixon."

Washington works as much on perception as reality. Together, these controversies -- especially the IRS uproar -- threaten to dominate all summer, which would politically imperil any second-term agenda. Last week, the president began to act more decisively. Democrats see that as a start.

opinion_commentary

Albert R. Hunt is a columnist for Bloomberg View.


Advertisement

Latest in Op Ed Columns

The orbiting revolution
about 5 hours ago
Hunting for humor
about 5 hours ago
Reduce overdose deaths
about 5 hours ago
Gobbling up the news
about 5 hours ago
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here