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Albert R. Hunt: How Obama can overcome faux scandals

  • Bloomberg News
  • Published Wednesday, May 22, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Here’s the White House view of the current trilogy of so-called scandals: Republicans are trying to destroy President Obama’s second term by magnifying bureaucratic miscues and distorting policy realities. This isn’t without some merit.

On none of these issues – the deadly debacle at the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya, the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, or the Justice Department’s secret and sweeping seizure of Associated Press phone records in an anti-leaks case – is there any suggestion of wrongdoing by Obama.

Republicans, ranging from the usually sensible South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham to Darrell Issa, the gunslinging chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, are playing politics.

Nevertheless, the controversies are undermining the president; his slow, reactive, alternately passive and cavalier responses are playing into critics’ hands. Experienced Democrats, outside the White House, want Obama to be more proactive, assertive and forthright to salvage his second term.

Among the bolder actions they want him to consider:

•  Appoint a special counsel in the IRS transgressions. Tap a knowledgeable outsider of the agency (say, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill) to quickly assemble a small staff to supplement career Justice Department investigators, with a target of a full report by Oct. 20. These findings, unlike an inquiry under Attorney General Eric Holder, would have credibility.

•  Accept Holder’s resignation. A favorite target of Republicans, the attorney general now has few fans among prominent Democrats. Given his record, his departure would be important substantively as well as symbolically.

•  Abandon widely discussed consideration of making United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice the head of the National Security Council later this year. She isn’t responsible for Benghazi and has been unfairly pilloried by critics such as Graham. Still, in her five network television appearances immediately after the tragedy, she displayed poor judgment. While head of the NSC isn’t a post requiring Senate confirmation, appointing Rice would reignite the firestorm in this largely faux scandal.

To be sure, it isn’t difficult to understand the administration’s complaints that many of the salient facts in these controversies are overlooked.

It’s a canard to say Benghazi is a classic case of the cover-up being worse than the crime. There was no crime. There were inexcusable security inadequacies in Libya. Once the attack began, there was no way U.S. forces could have prevented those tragic murders, asserts, among others, Bob Gates, defense secretary under Presidents Bush and Obama.

The surreptitious subpoena of the AP’s phone records is outrageous. It reflects Obama’s obsession with preventing leaks; this Justice Department has prosecuted more whistle-blowers, including journalists, than under Attorneys General John Mitchell, Ed Meese and John Ashcroft combined.

Going back to Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, such obsessions invariably produce more problems than benefits. Yet congressional Republicans were the driving force for the leak investigations.

There is no defense for America’s tax agency targeting particular groups because of their perceived ideology. Still, it’s also true that the tax status of many of these groups, on the left and on the right, should be scrutinized, as many may falsely claim their purpose is to promote social welfare, not politics. If their tax status is questionable, the IRS has to ask political questions.

There are decided downsides to taking any of these actions. Outside counsels notoriously spin out of control and outlast their purpose. If Holder is pushed out, the White House would face an ugly confirmation battle over his successor.

Forceful action, however, is the only way the president can counter the steady partisan assaults and get back to talking about his agenda: immigration, implementing the Affordable Care Act, fiscal fairness and background checks for purchasing guns.

The trade-offs aren’t impossible. Outside counsel can act expeditiously; in the 1980s, the legendary Washington lawyer Jake Stein took less than six months to investigate Attorney General-designate Ed Meese. If the misdeeds at the IRS are limited to relatively low-level bureaucrats, such an inquiry should take even less time.

As for the attorney general, his credibility on these hot issues is gone. As a replacement, Obama might have to search for a fair-minded, moderate Republican, and no White House wants an attorney general of the opposite party. That would be better than the status quo. And anything that adds fuel to the phony Benghazi clamor is a political and policy distraction.

When it comes to the leaks, the president should be sobered by an interesting new book, “Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles.” The author, James Goodale, served as counsel to the New York Times for the Pentagon Papers, the famous 1971 case involving Nixon’s attempts to censor the press. “In many respects” on press issues, Goodale writes, “President Obama is no better than Nixon.”

This story is a conundrum. This is the most scandal-free administration in recent memory. The word scandal is a misnomer for each of these three distinctly different matters.

Yet Washington works as much on perception as reality. Together, these controversies – and especially the IRS uproar – threaten to dominate all summer, which would politically imperil any second-term agenda. Last week, the president began to act more decisively. Democrats see that as a start.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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