The IRS was caught targeting politically conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, setting off a storm of criticism from the right. The Justice Department secretly seized journalists’ phone records, prompting criticism from the left. And his administration is still fending off accusations of hiding information even as it dives into damage-control mode over the deadly attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, last fall.
With the controversies piling on, President Barack Obama stood in the pouring rain at a press conference Thursday fielding pointed questions about a trifecta of scandals that has commentators wondering whether he can get anything done in his second term. The problems this week accumulated so fast and hit him so hard that Mr. Obama faced comparisons to Richard Nixon, who resigned when he was engulfed by the Watergate scandal.
But despite speculation that the President is headed for a troubled lame-duck term, some political analysts offer an opposing narrative based on precedent. The reality, they say, is that second-term presidents have historically presided over scandals and some have then emerged with their legacies firmly intact.
“This is a very typical second-term phenomenon,” said Paul Bledsoe, who worked in the White House during the last two years of the Clinton administration and now runs a Washington-based political consultancy firm.
Stephen Hess, a former Eisenhower and Nixon White House staffer, said Mr. Obama may be “having a bad week” but none of the controversies are fatal. “The talk about ‘lame duck’ is nonsense,” said Mr. Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institute. “This President gets eight years and he hasn’t even had five. There’s a lot of time ahead. Being president is not a hapless job – there’s lots of power if you know how to use it.”
The controversies, though, divert time and energy from key agenda items. Just this week the President held three press conferences that dealt with the scandals and, as Mr. Bledsoe said, the need for damage control has “put a damper” on the prospect of the White House soon turning its attention to regaining control of Congress in 2014. But second-term stumbles could be the mark of a bright future, according to Princeton University history and public affairs professor Julian Zelizer.
“Second-term presidents who have had scandals have gone on to do big things after,” he said. “Reagan had Iran-Contra but he ended up negotiating an end to the Cold War. … [Bill] Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives but went on to have surpluses, mount a military offensive in Yugoslavia and is one of the most popular presidents. Even George Bush, who was very unpopular and had his own scandals, ended up with the passage of [a financial bailout].”
Prof. Zelizer added: “It’s much too early to count [the President] out, not only in terms of survival but in terms of what he can accomplish. There’s still a lot of space for him to be more than just a lame duck.”
That take was bolstered by an analysis of first- versus second-term presidential approval ratings by New York Times blogger and statistician Nate Silver. “The idea of the second-term curse is sloppy,” Mr. Silver wrote Thursday, pointing out that some recent presidents actually saw their ratings rise in their latter years in office.
Mr. Obama could see that happen. In order to ensure he falls into that category, Mr. Bledsoe said, the President needs to go back to basics and start “slamming” Republicans, calling on them to help pass legislative items such as immigration reform, which has broad public support. “Politics is about momentum – the perception of strength and support,” he said.
In the Rose Garden on Thursday, Mr. Obama had to address the recent scandals. He said he would not tolerate IRS bias or misconduct. But he said he would not apologize for trying to prevent leaks and protect classified information – the apparent justification for spying on a news agency’s phone logs – and said that a balance must be struck between national security and the right to know.
Mr. Hess, the former Republican presidential aide, suggested an additional strategy for Mr. Obama. “He has, in many ways, proven to be better at campaigning than governing,” Mr. Hess said. “So maybe the solution for him is in campaigning – getting out and telling his story more vibrantly and more completely than he has.”
On Thursday, Mr. Obama appeared to make a start in telling, again, his story. Speaking forcefully about the controversy over the seizure of Associated Press phone records, Mr. Obama told reporters: “The whole reason I got involved in politics is because I believe so deeply in … democracy.”