The honeymoon, if there ever was one, is over.
Four months into his second term, President Barack Obama finds himself under siege from members of both parties and the news media for a series of crises that have stalled his policy priorities and threaten to engulf the second half of his presidency.
The Justice Department secretly seized the telephone records of journalists as part of an unprecedented crackdown on leaks. The Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups that were seeking tax-exempt status. And the administration is fighting accusations of a cover-up after a number of conflicting reports surfaced about what happened before and after an attack last Sept. 11 on a diplomatic facility in Libya that left four Americans dead.
Congress already has launched investigations into two of the issues – the fatal attack in Libya and the IRS scrutiny of conservative groups – and lawmakers have raised plenty of questions about the third.
In just the past week, Obama has faced more critical scrutiny than perhaps he did in his entire first term. Some have even compared him to President Richard Nixon, who was accused of using the IRS to punish his enemies and of overzealously searching for leaks inside his administration.
“It’s been a very rough few days,” said Allan Lichtman, a historian at American University. “People are talking about the second term curse. That is not what the president needs to be hearing. He has an important agenda. Environment, guns, immigration. That’s a very ambitious second term. . . . These alleged scandals have been a distraction.”
On Wednesday, Obama took a series of steps to try to quell the growing controversies.
He fired the IRS’s acting chief and pledged to work with Congress to determine who’d ordered agency employees to target the conservative organizations. He released 100 emails to try to show that the White House didn’t attempt to cover up information about the fatal attack in Libya. And he renewed his support for a reporter shield law, though his aides were quick to say it had nothing to do with the outrage that followed the seizure of journalists’ phone records.
Until then, White House aides had been inundated with questions but said they knew very little. Twice, they acknowledged, the president learned of the issues only from news reports.
They’d referred questions from the increasingly aggressive news media to individual agencies, while cautioning the public not to judge any actions hastily or lump them together.
“I understand the natural inclination to try to bunch some of these things together, but there really is a distinction here,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
Carney said those who compared the Obama and Nixon administrations needed to check their history.
“It is a reflection of the . . . sort of rapid politicization of everything that you have that kind of commentary,” he said.
Scholars who study the presidency say the Obama administration has been struggling with its reaction to the controversies.
William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton who’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research center, said crisis managers all would advise Obama not to let an issue come out bit by bit. But that’s exactly what he’s letting happen.
“If your credibility is under attack, the first thing you need to do is restore it,” he said. “They have to work hard to get out in front of it.”
For more than a century, presidents have run into unforeseen problems in their second terms. Most recently, Nixon was forced from office for the abuses known collectively as Watergate, Ronald Reagan endured the Iran-Contra scandal, Bill Clinton was accused of lying under oath to conceal an affair and was impeached, and George W. Bush watched unpopular wars and the poor response to Hurricane Katrina sink his popularity.
For Obama, it hasn’t been just three things.
His Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, is under fire for soliciting donations from companies her agency might regulate to help sign up uninsured Americans for the new health care law, Obama’s signature achievement.
“Typically, second-term presidents are out of steam,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas. “The president himself is holding up pretty well, but in his heart of hearts he’s got to be sick of the intractability.”
Experts say the crises have started to take time away from Obama’s priorities. Last Friday, a day Obama wanted to devote to the implementation of his health care law, he and his staff were fielding questions about the IRS and new reports on the fatal attack in Libya.
The president continues to focus on his priorities, Carney said, including a rewrite of immigration laws and solutions to the nation’s fiscal problems.
“The president is focused on what he believes the American people expect from him and from their leaders in Washington,” he said. “And you have seen that, and you will continue to see that in the days and weeks and months ahead.”
Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York, said that so far the issues hadn’t affected the president’s approval ratings, which have hovered consistently in the high 40s or low 50s. Miringoff doesn’t expect that to change.
“I don’t think these are things that connect with voters,” he said, though cautioning, “You don’t want to start having dots connect to form a broader picture.”