WASHINGTON — With a trio of political controversies enveloping President Obama’s administration early in his second term, the White House sought to insulate itself Tuesday from fallout even as it rebuffed repeated questions about the president’s response to the growing problems.
The upshot was an image of a president and his top advisers retreating to the bunker, seeking to distance themselves by deflecting blame to functionaries deeper in the bureaucracy.
The atmosphere spurred calls for resignations and breathed new life into Republicans in Congress, who are preparing for committee hearings that promise weeks of headaches for the president. The events are proving to be a major distraction from Obama’s policy priorities such as immigration and the economy and appear to be sapping whatever mandate the reelected president brought into the White House just four months ago.
In one of the most telling signs of the current state of Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder stood before cameras Tuesday, attempting to grapple with the two newest political crises.
Holder announced that he was not playing a role in the Justice Department’s national security leak investigation that led to the widely criticized decision to subpoena the phone records of journalists at the Associated Press, because he himself had been interviewed in the leak investigation. He said the decision to investigate the activities of the press was made by a deputy.
On top of that, the attorney general announced that he was launching a criminal investigation into allegations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted Tea Party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied to become charitable organizations.
Some of the problems in which Obama is mired are troubling even to his allies, who worry that he may lose control of one of the core messages he ran on in the first place: fixing Washington. Each of the challenges — from lax and apparently uneven enforcement of the rules for charitable organizations at the IRS; to efforts to shape the now-famous Benghazi talking points; to the heavy-handed leak investigation targeting the AP — is rooted in a focus on politics and scripting government policy for political purposes.
“You can’t blame the president directly, but it depends on how this turns out,” said Representative Michael Capuano, Democrat of Somerville. “We’ll know in the next few months. It’s going to be nothing but who knew what when — and those are valid questions.”
“It looks bad,” he added, “and it may well be bad.”
With regard to the IRS controversy, campaign finance watchdogs have long accused the administration of failing to provide clear guidance and enforcement for political activity by charitable groups, allowing an environment of apparently haphazard enforcement, and potential double standards, to flourish. The IRS decision to target conservative groups for scrutiny stands in contrast to an apparent lack of enforcement of activity by the president’s supporters, who created charitable groups that engage in political activity, Priorities USA and Organizing for Action.
“I’ll state it bluntly: President Obama and his administration have been very disappointing in their lack of attention to cleaning up big and often undisclosed money in politics,” said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
“As a general matter, President Obama has not made campaign finance a priority,” he said. “It’s not surprising the agencies in his administration have likewise not done so.”
On Tuesday night, several hours after an independent inspector general’s report was released saying the IRS developed “inappropriate criteria” that gave more scrutiny to conservative groups, Obama released a strongly worded statement. “The report’s findings are intolerable and inexcusable,” he said, pledging to implement the report’s recommendations swiftly as well as “hold those responsible for these failures accountable.”
In the meantime, Obama’s opponents were turning up the heat — and trying to make sure he, too, was held accountable.
“I have never seen anything quite like this except in the past, in the Nixon years,” said Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican. “We’re talking about liberty here, we’re talking about freedom in America. If we can manipulate the IRS . . . everyone ought to be very, very fearful.”
The White House has also been responding for months to charges that it sought to shape United Nations ambassador Susan Rice’s talking points on the crisis in Benghazi — where a US consulate was attacked last September, killing four Americans including an ambassador — in a way that downplayed the role of organized terrorists. The shifting accounts and increasing evidence of White House consultations about the content of the talking points have provided new fuel for Republican critics on Capitol Hill.
And now the Justice Department is grappling with accusations, which became public Monday, that it pursued leak investigations into the AP over leaked classified information with a blunderbuss, launching an overly broad pursuit of reporters’ personal and business phone records.
Reporters are demanding to know why this administration has launched more investigations into national security leaks than all other presidents combined.
Even the president’s allies are shaking their heads. Senate majority leader Harry Reid called the Justice Department’s seizure of phone records “inexcusable.”
“I have trouble defending what the Justice Department did in looking at the AP,” Reid said. “I really believe in the First Amendment. I think it’s one of the great things we have as a country. I don’t know who did it or why it was done, but it was inexcusable. There is no way to justify this.”
The administration on Tuesday continued to say that officials outside the White House — and below any Cabinet-level positions — were the ones who bore responsibility for the controversies.
Even while he explained why he recused himself from the leak investigation, Holder defended his agency’s conduct in the matter. He also said the AP story written based on the leak, which revealed a terrorist plot that the CIA foiled in Yemen, “put the American people at risk.” He did not elaborate on that risk.
“This was a serious leak. A very, very serious leak,” Holder said, noting he has been a prosecutor since 1976. “This is among — if not the most serious, it is within the top two or three most serious leaks I’ve ever seen.”
Still, each of the issues plays into the hands of critics, who have long charged Obama with overseeing an era of government overreach.
“Obama campaigned on transparency and competence,” Mark McKinnon, a media strategist and former adviser to President George W. Bush, said in an e-mail. “These events combined undermine both.”
But others say presidents frequently must grapple with such challenges as they explode within their administrations, and that Obama’s luck, after a fairly scandal-free stretch, has finally run out.
“What we’re seeing now is, eventually his immunity from scandal inquiries has softened,” said Linda Fowler, a political science professor at Dartmouth College.
“This is one of those things where the president needs to do more than say, ‘It’s terrible, this won’t be tolerated,’ ” she added. “And if some of his aides were interfering, he needs to put their heads on blocks and get rid of them.”
Most Democrats said on Tuesday that they were troubled by the disclosures, but that it was too early to determine whether Obama should accept blame.
“There’s clearly been a politicizing of investigations done by the Republicans, there’s no question about that,” said Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland. “Having said that, with the IRS what I’ve seen so far has me very concerned.”
Representative Joseph Kennedy III, a Democrat from Brookline, said “it’s important to let these investigations play out a bit.”
“It’s still way too early to discuss whether the White House should have been in control of anything,” he said in an interview. “There’s nothing I’ve seen that [indicates] the White House was behind any of this, and that’s been very, very clear.”