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Obama Moves Aggressively Into Damage Control Mode


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Renee's in Afghanistan. I'm Steve Inskeep. President Obama's administration has gone through entire seasons when it seemed the bottom was falling out. The administration's outward approach at times like this has been to seem unflappable and move on.

His campaign boss once dismissed worried allies as bed-wetters. White House aides talk of a president who can walk and chew gum at the same time. Yet, this time around, a confluence of controversies has forced the administration into damage control. Two top IRS officials are out, following news the agency targeted conservative groups.

Yesterday, the president named a new IRS acting commissioner, and he defended the Justice Department's investigation of a national security leak that led to the subpoena of journalists' phone records. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Mr. Obama's flurry of decisive activity is meant to dispel the impression that he's losing control of his own government. At a rainy press conference in the Rose Garden yesterday, he walked a fine line between distancing himself from the controversies and showing that he was fully in charge.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My concern is making sure that if there's a problem in the government, that we fix it. That's my responsibility, and that's what we're going to do.

LIASSON: On Wednesday, the president had moved aggressively into damage control mode. He released 100 pages of emails about the lethal attack on the Benghazi consulate, and he got rid of the acting IRS commissioner. Ken Duberstein, who was President Reagan's second-term chief of staff, says Mr. Obama is running into the same trouble that has plagued every other second term president.

KEN DUBERSTEIN: Whether it's Eisenhower on the U-2, whether it was Clinton one Monica Lewinsky, whether it was us on Iran-Contra, every two-term president falls into the scandal problems.

LIASSON: Duberstein says its too soon to know exactly what kind of political damage these problems will cause, but...

DUBERSTEIN: All these scandals divert the president from his agenda and makes him play defense all the time.

LIASSON: President Obama will be trying to get back on offense today, with a trip to Baltimore focused on jobs and the economy. And it's not exactly clear which other priorities of the president's will suffer. After all, immigration reform seems to have a momentum of its own, since many Republicans see that issue in their own electoral interest.

Republicans on Capitol Hill were already disinclined to compromise with the president on gun control and the budget, or to pass his proposals on the minimum wage or universal preschool. Chris Lehane, a veteran of President Clinton's second term scandals and the author of the book "Masters of Disaster," says part of the president's challenge now is simply crisis management.

CHRIS LEHANE: The issues - at least as we now know them - are no where near the magnitude of the types of challenges that a Ronald Reagan faced with Iran-Contra or a President Clinton faced on the Monica investigation. This doesn't go to the conduct of the president. But we're also living in a period where it is so more difficult to manage these, just because of how communications work.

LIASSON: And there's no doubt that right now, the Republicans have the advantage. An abusive partisan IRS is a storyline tailor-made to energize the conservative base of the GOP as it gets ready for the 2014 midterms.

NEWT GINGRICH: You can't make up these narratives. This is beyond any conservative's wildest dreams.

LIASSON: That's former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton's antagonist in the 1990s. Gingrich thinks the scandals will anchor the narrative of President Obama's intrusive, big-government approach, and that will work for his party in 2014, just as it did in 2010. But, Gingrich says, there is a potential pitfall for Republicans as they pursue the president.

GINGRICH: Of course there is. I think we overreached in '98. How's that for a quote you can use?

LIASSON: Republican overreach is what Democrats are counting on. One-third of the committees in the House are currently devoted to investigating the administration, and several Republicans in Congress have already talked about impeachment. Gingrich recommends that Republicans proceed relentlessly, but with caution.

GINGRICH: They need to be calm and factual. For example, I think a subcommittee of Ways and Means should invite every single Tea Party conservative patriot group that was messed over by the IRS, every single one of them, to come in and testify, so that they dispel this deadening record of how many different people were having their rights abused by the administration.

LIASSON: Polls show that the level of the public's interest in the scandals is nowhere near the attention they're getting from the Washington media. But there are warning signs. In the latest Pew poll, 53 percent agreed that, quote, "the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms."

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says that while the IRS is a reviled institution for the Republican base, the subpoena of the AP's phone records could inflame liberals.

GEOFF GARIN: The president and the Democrats have to pay some attention to making sure that the base stays with the president, because some civil liberties issues cut both ways.

LIASSON: Yesterday, the president said he wants to strike a balance between national security and civil liberties. And the White House may be looking for opportunities to reset its agenda here, as well, including a renewed push to close the Guantanamo prison camp. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.