WASHINGTON -- The honeymoon, if there ever was one, is over.
Four months into his second term, President Barack Obama finds himself under siege from members of both parties and the news media for a series of crises that have stalled his policy priorities and threaten to engulf the second half of his presidency.
The Justice Department secretly seized the telephone records of journalists as part of an unprecedented crackdown on leaks. The Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups that were seeking tax-exempt status. And the administration is fighting accusations of a cover-up after a number of conflicting reports surfaced about what happened before and after an attack last Sept. 11 on a diplomatic facility in Libya that left four Americans dead.
Congress already has launched investigations into two of the issues – the fatal attack in Libya and the IRS scrutiny of conservative groups – and lawmakers have raised plenty of questions about the third.
In just the past week, Obama has faced more critical scrutiny than perhaps he did in his entire first term. Some have even compared him to President Richard Nixon, who was accused of using the IRS to punish his enemies and of overzealously searching for leaks inside his administration.
“It’s been a very rough few days,” said Allan Lichtman, a historian at American University. “People are talking about the second term curse. That is not what the president needs to be hearing. He has an important agenda. Environment, guns, immigration. That’s a very ambitious second term. . . . These alleged scandals have been a distraction.”
On Wednesday, Obama took a series of steps to try to quell the growing controversies.
He fired the IRS’s acting chief and pledged to work with Congress to determine who’d ordered agency employees to target the conservative organizations. He released 100 emails to try to show that the White House didn’t attempt to cover up information about the fatal attack in Libya. And he renewed his support for a reporter shield law, though his aides were quick to say it had nothing to do with the outrage that followed the seizure of journalists’ phone records.
Until then, White House aides had been inundated with questions but said they knew very little. Twice, they acknowledged, the president learned of the issues only from news reports.
They’d referred questions from the increasingly aggressive news media to individual agencies, while cautioning the public not to judge any actions hastily or lump them together.
“I understand the natural inclination to try to bunch some of these things together, but there really is a distinction here,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
Carney said those who compared the Obama and Nixon administrations needed to check their history.
“It is a reflection of the . . . sort of rapid politicization of everything that you have that kind of commentary,” he said.
Scholars who study the presidency say the Obama administration has been struggling with its reaction to the controversies.
William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton who’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research center, said crisis managers all would advise Obama not to let an issue come out bit by bit. But that’s exactly what he’s letting happen.