B-list scandals begin to take the shine off Barack Obama's halo

Out of America: Republicans are relishing the discomfort of a president who rarely puts a foot wrong

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Washington is in full scandal mode, and we'd almost forgotten what it was like. A president besieged, congressional hearings, subpoenas flying, an FBI investigation, dark murmurings about "what did he know and when did he know it", and the familiar admonition that what matters is not the crime but the cover-up. On the farthest fringes, even the dread word "impeachment" is to be heard. Throw in a special prosecutor, and the show would be complete.

Such, right now, is the unhappy situation of Barack Obama, assailed on three separate counts, all falling beneath the umbrella charge of over-mighty and deceitful government. The first relates to the death of four American officials in last September's attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The second concerns the secret seizure by the Justice Department of journalists' phone records, and the third the targeting of conservative political groups by the IRS, the country's tax-collection agency.

Let it be said at once that, with the possible exception of the IRS affair, none of the trio – at least on the basis of what is currently known – is an A-lister. They are three unrelated controversies that happen to have hit the headlines simultaneously; even if they were tips of the same iceberg, that iceberg would not come close to the Watergate and Iran/Contra scandals that respectively sank and almost sank Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

This time reactions have split entirely on party lines. Soundly defeated in the last two White House elections, Republicans are salivating at the opportunity for revenge on a president they cannot stand. Democrats, however, have closed ranks behind Mr Obama. And it may well be that the worst is already over.

For one thing, Benghazi barely qualifies as a scandal. Even as Republicans portray it, it appears all smoke and no gun, a ferocious but classic Washington post-facto feud on how to spin the explanation for the attack, between the State Department and the CIA. Nor is the Republicans' prime target even the president, but the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, whom they see as their most formidable Democratic opponent in 2016.

As for the gathering of phone records of reporters at the Associated Press, in pursuit of a leak about an anti-terrorist operation in Yemen, the intrusion has understandably created an outcry in the media, and plays into fears about the "Big Brother" state. The fact, however, is that the Justice Department's behaviour is quite legal under the various national security laws passed in the aftermath of 9/11.

By far the most dangerous is the row over the IRS. For one thing, taxes concern everyone across the country. For another it does raise a shade of Watergate: Nixon's use of the IRS to persecute his political enemies. But even this scandal may already have been defanged by Mr Obama's swift sacking of the IRS chief, and his own evident fury at what happened.

Since Watergate, the White House has been forbidden by law from having direct contact with the tax authorities. The former's targets happen to have been the president's political foes. But as to what Mr Obama knew and when he knew it, the answers appear to be: not very much, and about the same time as the rest of us.

For Republicans, meanwhile, the lesson should be: be careful of what you wish for. An excessively zealous prosecution of the president could backfire. In their eagerness to nail Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair, the party badly overplayed its hand and actually lost ground in the 1998 mid-term elections. And today's congressional Republicans, it should be noted, are even less popular than their counterparts of 15 years ago.

Most important though, scandal mode in Washington distorts reality. The true question of the hour is not misbehaviour at the IRS, or Orwellian conduct by the Justice Department, but a far simpler one – what's gone wrong with President Obama? Everyone knows about second-term blues: Watergate, Iran/Contra and Monica Lewinsky all occurred in second terms. But how did a president triumphantly returned to office barely six months ago, with political capital to spend and no more elections to bother about, get so bogged down, so fast?

The charitable, immediate explanation is that, to his credit, Mr Obama is out of practice with scandals. His entire first term was almost miraculously free of them. Compare and contrast with Bill Clinton, beset by scandals almost from day one, and who soon set up a special White House unit to deal with them.

But well before this last week, Mr Obama was struggling. His attempts to tighten gun controls after the Sandy Hook massacre had failed ignominously, deficit reduction talks were going nowhere, Republicans were blocking a host of high-level government appointments, and the Syrian crisis was beyond all US influence. At times, you got the feeling he had virtually given up.

A large measure of blame, of course, attaches to Republicans, whose avowed aim is to stop the president's entire agenda and whose control of the House of Representatives enables them to do just that. But old complaints about Mr Obama are surfacing too. He's too passive, they say. He won't schmooze, he's arrogant and he's aloof. He doesn't even seem to enjoy being president. Nor does it help that the White House press corps doesn't much care for him. At moments like this, that matters.

It's far too early to write him off. Mr Obama has shown his ability to galvanise himself into action just when he seems consumed by lassitude. Scandals are indeed a distraction from serious business at hand – but a big international crisis or a bold initiative at home could drive his present woes from the headlines. A lame duck he is not. But those hopes in January, of a bold, creative and productive second term, now seem a distant memory.

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