The IRS and Justice Department Could Become Problems for Obama

The news this week about the Department of Justice looking at the phone logs of journalists covering the White House, and of the IRS scrutinizing the tax returns of various right-wing groups, is bad for the Obama administration. They are also much more likely to stick than the Benghazi story. The Justice Department and IRS stories make the administration look almost like a branch of the Obama campaign, putting their ample resources behind efforts to harass, or at least gather information, about the Obama administration. In a comparative sense, these are not as serious as Watergate, domestic surveillance during the Nixon administration, or Iran-Contra, but they have the potential to be solid b-level scandals, too small to bring down a president, but big enough to accelerate that second term president's lame duck status.

Benghazi, on the other hand, will be much less damaging to the president, and, more importantly, to the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who has been the primary target of this investigation. Clinton will likely seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. If she does that, she will be a very heavy favorite to win her party's nomination and indeed the general election. This is the main reason the Republicans are so focused on Benghazi -- it represents a long-shot opportunity to take the strongest Democrat out of the 2016 race. The unambiguously political nature of this agenda is also why the Republicans will come up empty-handed in this effort. As the Benghazi investigation unfolds, and the Republicans continue to get little traction outside of their base, Clinton becomes stronger for withstanding another partisan attack, rather than weaker.

The IRS and Department of Justice stories are different. The facts are not all known yet; and it is becoming clear that there is some complexity to these stories, but they could be damaging to the president. The primary reason for this is that, unlike Benghazi, which is essentially a bad foreign-policy outcome which the Republicans are trying to exploit for partisan benefit, the domestic scandals anger the right because they are the victims of these inappropriate actions as well as progressives and others who are offended by government surveillance of any kind. Thus, these stories have the potential to influence a broader segment of the population.

It is also true that Obama is hardly the first president to engage in domestic surveillance, and that what he has done pales compared to what other presidents, notably Richard Nixon, has done. This, however, will have little impact on how voters, particularly those in his base, view this issue. Central to Obama's entire political persona is that he is a different kind of politician. He ran for the presidency claiming he was going to transcend partisanship and change the culture of Washington. He cannot be faulted for failing to do this, although he probably can be faulted for underestimating the difficulty involved in that task. However, this kind of behavior which harkens back to the worst behavior of some of the sleaziest recent administrations, is exactly the kind of thing Obama implicitly campaigned against, particularly in 2008.

The IRS and Justice Department stories also raise questions of Obama's management and even competence. Although the IRS, for good political reasons, enjoys some political independence from the White House, it is still an executive agency over which the president has some influence. The Justice Department is also an executive agency over which the president, through appointments and policy, has a fair amount of influence. It is possible that Obama indeed did not know that these two agencies were involved, in one form or another, with some kind of surveillance of harassment of political opponents. This defense is probably more plausible from President Obama, who has often seemed to be a hands-off administrator, than it would be from some other presidents, but it also underscores the problems of Obama's hands-off approach.

The resignation of the acting IRS director Steven Miller is a step in the right direction, as it indicates that the administration understands the severity of the IRS missteps and that the president was serious about demanding some accountability. The Justice Department's subpoena of reporter's phone logs will present a more difficult challenge to Obama. The Justice Department is more directly accountable to the president, so high-level resignations there are more of a problem for the administration. If Deputy Attorney General James Cole, the official who signed off on the subpoenas, or Attorney General Eric Holder, are forced to resign it will be a much bigger blemish on the Obama presidency. However, if nobody loses their job, then the president will have a harder time convincing voters that he is holding people accountable for this.