WASHINGTON - President Obama seemed to lose control of his second-term agenda even before he was sworn in, when a school massacre led him to lift gun control to the fore. Now, as he tries to pivot from a stinging defeat on that issue and push forward on others, the president finds himself rocked by multiple controversies that are demoralizing his allies, emboldening his political foes, and posing huge distractions for all.
It's unclear how long he will be dogged by inquiries into last year's deadly attack in Libya, the IRS targeting of tea party groups, and now the seizure of Associated Press phone records in a leak investigation. But if nothing else, these episodes give new confidence and swagger to Republicans who were discouraged by Obama's reelection and their inability to block tax increases as part of the Jan. 1 fiscal cliff deal.
Taken together, these matters will make it harder for the administration to focus on its priorities - racking up a few more accomplishments before next year's national elections.
"It's a torrential downpour, and it's happening at the worst possible time, because the window is closing" on opportunities to accomplish things before the 2014 campaigns, said Matt Bennett, who worked in the Clinton White House. From here on, he said, "it's going to be very, very difficult."
So far, there's no evidence that Obama knew about - let alone was involved in - the government actions in question. But a president usually is held accountable for his administration's actions, and Republicans now have material to fuel accusations and congressional hearings that they hope will embarrass him, erode his credibility, and bolster their argument that his government is overreaching. Even some of his Democratic allies are publicly expressing dismay at the AP phone-records seizure.
Obama advisers on Tuesday cast the trio of controversies as matters that flare up in an institution as complex as the U.S. government, and they questioned the impact of them. The one exception, advisers said, was the brewing scandal at the IRS, which they see as the issue most likely to strike a chord with Americans.
The press case sparked bipartisan outcry, with several GOP and Democratic officials questioning the Justice Department's actions in the matter. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. should resign over the issue, adding: "Freedom of the press is an essential right in a free society."
As the press and IRS issues boiled over Tuesday, many conservative activists stayed focused on the attack last September in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Republicans have spent the last eight months accusing the Obama administration of ignoring security needs before the attack, and of revising subsequent "talking points" to play down the role of Islamic terrorists in the assault, which occurred at the height of Obama's reelection campaign.
Despite the noisy controversies, White House advisers tamped down suggestions that Obama would make any sudden moves, such as firing top officials or shaking up his team. In a Tuesday night statement on the inspector general's IRS report, Obama said he expected those responsible to be held "accountable," though he did not specify what that should entail.
Republican consultant John Feehery said the IRS and Benghazi controversies undercut the president's argument for increasing government's role in health care and almost everything else. They undermine the notion, he said, "that government is trustworthy and can fix problems."