When it rains, it pours. The combined weight of the three growing Obama administration scandals is weighing down the White House and overwhelming their ability to control the story or advance their agenda.
In hospital triage, this is the equivalent of not having enough bed space.
Each scandal, if it occurred by itself, could potentially be dealt with. But their combination is forming a narrative that the White House is not being honest amid a culture of “scandal.”
The three controversies, the IRS targeting of conservative groups, the Benghazi terrorist attack and the DOJ targeting of AP reporters, are unique. They will ebb and flow on their own terms and in their own way, as news develops.
But each poses a serious political threat to the administration.
The most threatening scandal is the IRS, because it’s easy to understand and everybody hates the IRS, unless they are one of their 90,000 employees. The scandal itself harkens back to the Nixon era, when political enemies were illegally targeted for audits and investigations. This week’s development, that IRS official Lois Lerner is choosing to plead the Fifth rather than testify, raises the serious and very real possibility that criminality was involved, not just incompetence. This action on Lerner’s part, and her combative press statement denying all wrongdoing, will intensify the media feeding frenzy.
The White House has consistently mishandled this scandal, with the timeline changing over who knew about the scandal and when. We are now supposed to believe that senior White House officials, including the White House Counsel, were notified of the Treasury Inspector General’s investigation into these targeting allegations, but that no one notified the President.
More problematic is the very real possibility that IRS officials lied to Congress in earlier testimony. IRS officials should be fired and the agency should be cleaned out, but civil service and public sector union laws make that exceedingly difficult. Meanwhile, the 90,000-person IRS is set to add 15,000 new employees to enforce Obamacare.
The second most threatening scandal is Benghazi. The mainstream media has almost unanimously ignored this story until two weeks ago when three whistleblowers offered compelling and credible testimony that invalidated much of what the White House had initially told the press and the public. More whistleblowers are expected and a closed congressional hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is set to soon question Ambassador Thomas Pickering, the top official who conducted the State Department review of the Benghazi matter.
Benghazi is not going away. Three serious unresolved questions remain: 1) why was the consulate not better protected, given the known security threats and did then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton really not personally receive the security requests; 2) why was the team trained to rescue the consulate told during the attack to “stand down”; and 3) why were the talking points changed to de-emphasize Islamic terrorism and instead to place blame on a video for the spontaneous attack? Until these three questions are answered honestly, the aggressive investigation will continue.
Finally, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) appears to be unbound in its national security leak investigation power. News that DOJ tapped 20 AP phone lines of more than 100 reporters has deeply concerned the working press, most of whom previously had been favorable toward the administration. Recent revelations that DOJ has aggressively used surveillance with Fox News’ James Rosen went even further than what has been done with AP reporters. This scandal, while of the least importance to the public, has proved most disturbing and serious, particularly to reporters who feel that their basic First Amendment freedoms are under fire.
President Obama’s personal appeal has been consistent over five years. These scandals though are beginning to erode that trust and goodwill and will hurt both his approval rating and political power.
One particularly worrisome notion is that administration officials were aware of damaging information regarding both the Benghazi and IRS scandals prior to the election but withheld this from the public in order to help the President’s re-election.
It remains to be seen whether these three scandals can be sustained through the 2014 midterm election, but their combined weight is freezing the White House’s legislative agenda, worrying Democrats and consuming enormous time for administration officials.
For the White House, the path back to playing offense is unseen.
Matt Mackowiak is a Washington- and Austin-based Republican consultant and president of Potomac Strategy Group, LLC. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.