A president, any president, is entering a trough when friends or detractors drag out creepy John Dean to offer an opinion on the scale of a scandal. The obstructor of justice from the Watergate scandal has been on display lately as a trifecta of controversies diminish the Obama administration.
The president and his top aides have stumbled day after day as the public's interest in Benghazi, the IRS and the seizure of press phone records grows. They probably thought in November that they'd made it through inquiries about the terrorist attack on the American embassy in Libya that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, last September.
Documents obtained by ABC's Jonathan Karl confirmed that the administration knew the deadly attack was not a spontaneous local uprising over a controversial video made by a disreputable Californian. The CIA talking points provided to administration officials were reworked to eliminate references to terrorist groups. Terrorism, according to the Obama campaign theme of the time, was in retreat as General Motors soared.
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The public's limits for tolerating politicians' trimming of the truth may be hard to find, but they exist. What makes the Benghazi story so dispiriting is the emerging impression that help might have been sent to the embattled Americans to fend off the terrorist assault in a country we had helped to liberate from Moammar Gadhafi.
Although foreign policy and military tactics can be complicated, no one is having trouble understanding and recoiling at the politicization of the IRS. This scandal will stick. The president seems notably clumsy in his response to the confession by the IRS that it targeted conservative groups for abuse. Obama has said that it's outrageous if true. We already know it's true — the story came to light when the IRS admitted it. There's no doubt that it happened. The chilling details that the powerful agency embarked on a mission to punish and silence Obama administration critics will continue to feed the story.
It was curious, then, to have the president, a former law school professor, claim that the IRS is an independent agency. It is not. It is an arm of the Treasury and its head serves at the pleasure of the president. It also has been used by other presidents to take down opponents. With its look of Chicago-style politics injected into an agency the public thinks of as off-limits to grimy partisanship, this scandal is not going away.
Neither is the story of the Justice Department's wide cull of Associated Press phone records in Washington and Hartford in pursuit of a news leaker. This one the White House said it learned about by watching the news. That's not a line likely to enhance the president's credibility as the storm gathers. Even the president's many friends in the media will be unnerved by this abuse of an unfettered press. It is no comfort that the leak-despising president claims to have been disengaged from this and other lethal acts of his administration.
Far-reaching consequences often accompany political scandals. They are difficult to douse because congressional investigations are slow and leaky. The press no longer rests. Revelations, large or small, can pop at any hour. Loyalties become frayed. Inevitable setbacks start to raise questions about who's up to the task of protecting the president and who is falling short. As the stakes rise, so do tensions. "What did the president know and when did he know it?" becomes a damaging chorus. Expect to hear it often in the next several months.
With the IRS taking a commanding role in our health care system under the Affordable Care Act, this is a bad moment for a long and searing inquiry into that agency's disregard for rudimentary tenets of fairness. You may be forgiven for getting the feeling that decisions on health care will be decided by political allegiances not sound public policy or clear regulations.
The political consequences of these scandals will grow. We've seen it before. The supporters of the beleaguered president become discouraged. Opponents, not long ago described as vanquished and moribund, are energized and optimistic. The great tranche of floating voters feel alienated. These feelings, if sustained, can affect candidate recruitment, fundraising, election results and a president's coveted place in history.