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Tide of scandal threatens White House

15 May 2013, 08:12

Washington - A trio of scandals bore down on the White House on Tuesday, leaving US President Barack Obama struggling for traction and threatening to drain already ebbing momentum from his second term agenda.

After a first term which largely escaped the grubby controversies and political brouhaha that habitually tests presidential administrations, Obama faced attack on multiple fronts.

Republicans demanded answers on claims that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative grassroots groups.

They also pressed on with probes into Obama's handling of the attack on the US mission in Benghazi - shrugging off the president complaints of a partisan "circus".

And a bombshell revelation on Monday that the justice department secretly seized phone records of Associated Press reporters stirred the increasingly febrile atmosphere that envelops Washington in times of scandal.

Add for good measure a just exposed and old fashioned Cold-War style spy standoff with Russia, and the shady 1970s vibe is complete.

Obama, increasingly frustrated at the Washington games he came to office vowing to end, has attempted to keep the damage from the three domestic kerfuffles at arm's length.

On Monday, he branded Republican attacks on his administration's handling of the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi last year as a "sideshow".

He eagerly joined the pile-on meanwhile at the IRS - likely the most reviled government agency in America.

"I've got no patience with it. I will not tolerate it," he said, vowing to get the bottom of the claims against the agency.

And his spokesperson Jay Carney said the White House had nothing to do with the operation to comb the AP's phone records - as part of an apparent case targeting national security leakers.

"We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the justice Ddepartment," said Carney.

Shaky start

Republicans have seized on the IRS drama, in particular, with delight, sensing openings to taint Obama with scandal - even though the agency is an independent body - and to unite their fervently anti-tax political grassroots.

"What we don't know at this point is whether it jumped the fence from the IRS to the White House," said Senate Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell, twisting the knife on Tuesday.

"Clearly, we've only started to scratch the surface of this scandal," said McConnell, who demanded the president make available any IRS official who can reveal what went on at the agency.

For Republicans, the tactic is obvious: link Obama with any whiff of scandal, whether he is responsible or not.

"How dare the administration imply that they're going to get to the bottom of it," Republican congressman Darrell Issa told CBS Tuesday.

"This was the targeting of the president's political enemies, effectively, and lies about it during the election year so that it wasn't discovered till afterwards."

Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul joined the attack, clearly looking to court the Republican base as they seek to shape the early 2016 presidential race.

For now, at least, there seems no clear evidence of wrongdoing by the president or top aides from any of the scandals that have hit critical mass in the last week.

So far, there are no suggestions of criminal activity and Republican claims that things are worse than the 1970s Watergate scandal that felled president Richard Nixon seem far-fetched.

But the danger for Obama is that the political fallout from a scandal will complicate an already shaky start to his second term, which has seen his gun control drive fail and ambitious economic agenda stall.

Even on immigration reform - his top second term priority - which stands a good chance of making it into law, Obama's best tactic is to remain publicly silent, to avoid alienating Republicans needed to pass the bill.

As the mood sours, the US media is already chock full of stories suggesting Obama is facing the "second term curse" that afflicts many presidencies.

But while he is in rocky political water, Obama's own political base has remained remarkably solid during a tough presidency.

There is however a danger that months of dragging scandal coverage could demoralise Democrats, and fire up Republicans in the run-up to the 2014 midterm elections.

Even if White House officials did nothing wrong - scandals can grind on for months, sapping political momentum, distracting key officials and forcing administration aides to sign up expensive lawyers.

A volley of congressional hearings, the drip-drip of damaging revelations and scandal-laced news coverage will likely continue to occupy the White House for months to come - further slowing Obama's second-term plans.



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