Holding pattern: The attorney general is hobbled by controversy

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Next to his boss the president, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. may have the hardest job in government. As the recent history of both major parties illustrates, the person who serves as the nation's chief law enforcement officer pleases few people and infuriates many.

Mr. Holder himself appears to recognize that he has become a political liability. According to a story in Sunday's New York Times, he considered stepping down after four years but did not in part because he wanted to move beyond the disputes that had characterized his tenure. The article made it clear that although President Barack Obama stands with him, some in the White House privately say he should step down.

To be fair, much of what he has done would be excoriated by Republicans, no matter who was attorney general. His resistance to GOP efforts to pass onerous voter ID laws has been stout -- he said such a law in Texas amounted to a poll tax -- and he has been a firm advocate of the Affordable Care Act.

But he has also offended civil libertarians by trying to justify deadly drone attacks by American citizens accused of terrorism. Lately his Justice Department has offended journalists by monitoring calls made by Associated Press reporters in a leak investigation and also targeting a Fox News reporter in a separate probe (Republicans claim he lied to Congress about his knowledge of this case).

There is no doubt that sometimes Mr. Holder has not been deft. To calm the media, he held an off-the-record interview with editors and tried to mollify them with promises of a federal shield law to protect reporters' sources. He was held in contempt by Congress for not handing over documents in the Fast and Furious "gun walking" fiasco. Although that was political grandstanding by Republicans, it was also an embarrassment to administration claims of being transparent.

Even if he were not close to Mr. Holder, the president knows that replacing one lightning rod with another will not stop the lightning -- and that assumes GOP senators would confirm any replacement nominee. No wonder Mr. Obama stands by the attorney general who politically isn't doing him much good. If Mr. Holder goes, it may have to be through the self-realization that he can't be effective under the weight of successive controversies, fair or not.

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