“I don't have a lot of time -- I have three-and-a-half years left. It goes by like that [snaps fingers].”
-- President Obama speaking at a political fundraiser in New York on Monday.
Just a quick rundown of Monday’s news for the Obama administration:
-- The Department of Justice was found to have targeted the nation’s largest news service with a massive dragnet to discover reporters’ sources.
-- The IRS claim that the targeting of opponents of the president and his policies was limited to low-level staffers in a single field office was revealed to be untrue.
-- President Obama misled reporters in answer to a question about allegations that he and his administration had previously misled them about an attack by Islamist militants on a U.S. diplomatic outpost.
So, not a super start to the week for the embattled chief executive. It’s particularly bad because Republicans are rounding up new scandals to keep the Obama administration on the ropes, most notably a Senate effort to probe allegations that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has improperly raised money for an outside group pushing Obama’s 2010 health law. Raising cash from the same people your agency regulates is a big no-no.
But for the three scandals now dominating Washington, Team Obama has explanations for all of these things, to some degree at least.
For the first two – the targeting of journalists and the harassment of Obama’s political opponents – it is that the White House was not involved. Individuals inside the government may have done wrong, but only to the president’s benefit, not at his behest.
This is the equivalent of a defendant pleading ignorance when faced with a charge of receiving stolen goods: I didn’t know this Rolex was stolen. I just thought it was a good deal.
On these scandals, the president has the opportunity now to demonstrate his surprise and dismay by lowering the boom on subordinates accused of wrongdoing. Obama, who is relying on the IRS to enforce his legacy health insurance law, can start there by purging the agency’s leadership and calling for the prosecution of malefactors.
After all, if the IRS knew about this for a year but only told the White House last month, there’s plenty of reason for the president to do some housecleaning. One wonders why word of the impending scandal hit the White House Counsel’s office in April, but the president says he learned about the targeting of his adversaries only through news reports. But maybe his official lawyer sat on the story. If that’s so, he might want to consider some personnel changes there too.
It’s a bit trickier on the massive data mining operation conducted on the Associated Press. Department of Justice rules require that subpoenas for reporters be approved by the attorney general, in this case, Obama stalwart and liberal icon Eric Holder.
The one question Obama took at Monday’s press conference was from the Associated Press, signaling the centrality of that news agency’s role. The AP ain’t what it used to be. But it is the last full-spectrum American wire service in business, making it even more important today, despite its diminished capacity.
The AP links the subpoenas to an investigation of how details about a CIA operation in Yemen were leaked to the wire service. But rounding up two months of phone records on 20 lines, including those covering Congress and the AP’s lawyers, seems reckless given that the story said to be in question was a little-noticed item about a year-old, foiled terror plot.
Incautious, bullying tactics with the press are not new allegations against the administration. But to this point, it has been about Obama flacks talking trash to reporters or punitive actions against unhelpful outlets. That may be tacky or heavy handed, but it’s not the same as using the power of the DOJ to snoop on whom reporters are talking to. This looks very, very bad.
Obama, though, can follow a similar approach here as he can with the IRS scandal. Expressions of shock and dismay followed by a thorough housecleaning, even if in this case it includes his longest serving, top-tier cabinet member.
It is certainly possible that two frequent targets of the president’s criticism – small government activists groups and the press – were victims of overzealous subordinates, not an orchestrated White House effort. But to prove that is so, Obama will have to act swiftly and unsparingly to punish those involved.
On Monday’s final debacle, though, the president can’t clean house. He is the one who misrepresented his past statements about the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya.
The defense here – claiming he previously called the Islamist raid an “act of terrorism” when he never had before –is that it was imprecise wording not willful misleading. Because the president used the word “terror” in a speech the day after the attack, it’s not such a big deal, say Democrats, that he rounded up that linguistic fraction to his own benefit.
Denying a cover up effectively means coming clean. The president didn’t do that on Monday. Instead he perpetuated one of the central allegations against him and his administration in the Benghazi scandal: That he and others hid the truth for their own political purposes.
Obama must quickly clarify his comments, making clear that he had never before called the attack an “act of terrorism.” When accused of a cover up, a politician must stop covering up.
Obama was able to use this kind of semantic fudging before it was revealed that his administration scrubbed public statements about the attack for political purposes. But he can’t do that anymore, and he certainly can’t make his biggest semantic leap yet.
The president needs to get cracking on all of this. His agenda was already in deep trouble after Senate Democrats rebuffed him on gun control and sequestration. A triple dose of scandal, especially when the best defenses to the charges are that the president was mostly oblivious, will quickly corrode what’s left of his second-term clout.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.