The new strategy, underscored in a flurry of new White House actions, signals an Obama team anxious to regain control amid controversies that have emboldened Republicans and threatened to plunge the president’s second term into a steady stream of congressional investigations.
This week, Obama released a trove of documents related to the Benghazi attacks amid pressure from Republicans. And he asked Congress to revive a media shield law that would protect journalists from having to reveal information, a step seen as a response to the Justice Department’s widely criticised subpoenas of phone records from reporters and editors at the Associated Press. And he forced the resignation of the top official at the Internal Revenue Service after the agency targeted conservative political groups.
“Americans have a right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it,” Obama said of the IRS actions. “I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour at any agency, but especially at the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives.”
Obama is expected to nominate a new acting IRS commissioner to replace Steven Miller who resigned on Wednesday evening.
The president addressed the IRS controversy on Monday, but his measured words left many unsatisfied, particularly given that he had waited three days to address the developments. He also repeatedly asserted that he was waiting to find out if the reports were accurate, even though top IRS officials had already acknowledged the controversial actions.
Adding to the narrative of a passive president were White House efforts to distance Obama from the IRS scandal, as well as revelations that the Justice Department had secretly obtained work and personal phone records of AP journalists. In both cases, the White House insisted the president had no prior knowledge of the events and learned about the matters as the public did — from news reports.
Obama’s cautious response, combined with his lack of awareness about controversies brewing within his administration, opened him to criticism from his Republican foes.
“If Obama really learned about the latest IRS and AP secret subpoena scandals in the news, who exactly is running the ship at the White House?” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.
But in a worrisome sign for the White House, some Democrats also criticised the president for not being more aggressive in responding to trouble.
Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former White House press secretary, said the president should have appointed a bipartisan commission of former IRS officials to look into the issue of targeting political organisations. And Gibbs gently chided his former boss for using passive language when he first addressed the political targeting during a White House news conference Monday.
“I think they would have a much better way of talking about this story rather than simply kind of landing on the, ‘Well, if this happened, then we’ll look at it’,” Gibbs said on MSNBC.
The fresh pair of controversies coincided with a resurgence in the GOP-led investigation into the Sept 11, 2012, attacks on a US compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans.
Congressional Republicans launched another round of hearings on the attacks last week. And today a congressional official disclosed details of emails among administration officials that resulted in talking points, used to publicly discuss the deadly incident, being revised to downplay the prospect that the attacks were an act of terror.
Obama aides insisted the emails were either taken out of context or provided no new information, but they resisted pressure to make the emails public for five days before finally disclosing them to reporters Wednesday. The emails revealed that then-CIA director David Petraeus disagreed with the final talking points, despite the White House’s insistence that the intelligence agency had the final say over the statements.