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RED-BLUE AMERICA: Can Obama survive scandals?

on May 20, 2013 10:19 AM

President Barack Obama has suddenly found himself mired in three different scandals: The ongoing Republican anger over the September attacks on the Libyan consulate in Benghazi; the revelation that the Internal Revenue Service has subjected tea party-movement groups to greater scrutiny than similar groups; and the news that the Department of Justice had subpoenaed the phone records of journalists suspected of receiving leaked information ... from the Obama administration.

How can the president fix these issues? What is the GOP’s role in all of this? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the matter.

MATHIS: If Obama has been smart, he’s been preparing awhile now for his presidency to become “scandal-plagued.”

Why? Because it’s impossible in modern politics for a second-term president not to become scandal-plagued.

Think about it: George W. Bush’s second term featured the U.S. attorney firings and the “Scooter” Libby prosecution, as well as public anger over Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War. Bill Clinton? Monica Lewinsky. Ronald Reagan? Iran-Contra. Richard Nixon? You’ve probably heard a little bit about Watergate, no? Dwight Eisenhower was the last twice-elected president to emerge from office relatively unscathed. That was more than 50 years ago.

What this suggests is that there are a couple of factors at work in any second-term presidency, all of which apply to Obama right now:

• The opposition party is highly motivated to find some dirt. Certainly, that seems to be the case with the Benghazi uproar, where GOP interest in ginning up a scandal seems to be greater than any actual scandal to be found. But scandals can consume a presidency’s energy and bog it down in endless congressional hearings.

• The ruling party gets a little too comfortable with the levers of power. That seems to be the case in the IRS matter, where employees in the Cincinnati office apparently decided to subject tea party applications to an extra level of scrutiny.

• The public realizes there are parts of the president’s philosophy it doesn’t like so much. Which is the case in the Justice Department’s decision to inspect the phone records of AP reporters: The Obama administration has, more than any of its predecessors, prosecuted leakers of confidential and classified information at every opportunity.

All the president can do, then, is try to clean house as best he can, then ride things out.

Scandals have a life of their own. From here on out, the president is only partly in control of events. It’ll be a bumpy ride.

BOYCHUK: Usually, when a president invariably reaches the point when his administration becomes mired in scandal, the question is: “What did he know and when did he know it?”

With multiple scandals erupting around the Obama White House right now, sorting out the facts will be a huge task. But the answer should be: It doesn’t really matter.

Obama probably had no idea his Justice Department was conducting a fishing expedition with Associated Press reporters’ phone records. He almost certainly didn’t know his Environmental Protection Agency was giving favorable treatment to left-wing groups making Freedom of Information Act requests while discriminating against similar requests from conservative groups.

He even didn’t need to order the Internal Revenue Service to give inappropriate scrutiny to tea party or other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, though he wouldn’t be the first to use the IRS to punish his political enemies.

Think back to 2009 and 2010. There were plenty of demagogic legislators and overwrought pundits tarring the nascent tea party movement as a bunch of racist fanatics and would-be revolutionaries. The IRS didn’t need to be told what to do. It was in the air the agency breathed.

That said, it’s hardly sufficient for IRS officials simply to apologize — as nonprofit-division head Lois Lerner did on April 10 — or explain away the abuses of power as the actions of a couple of “rogue agents” in Cincinnati. Nor does the supposed firing of acting IRS Director Steven Miller settle anything. His assignment was ending next month anyway.

Congress should get to the bottom of what these federal agencies did, find out who knew what, learn whether people broke the law and decide whether laws should change.

But let’s face it: Our federal government is simply too massive for one man to control. The remedy isn’t necessarily to replace the president, or to impose new “accountability” rules on the bureaucracy, or even to jail a few overzealous officials — satisfying as that would be.

The answer is to shrink the size and scope of government. Who’s up for that?

Reach Ben Boychuk at bboychuk@city-journal.org, and Joel Mathis at joelmmathis@gmail.com.

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