There was much cause for optimism when Barack Obama regained the White House last November. Never mind the warnings of “second-term blues”; with the small-government Tea Party looking like a spent force and the winds of economic recovery behind him, the newly re-elected President was all set to carry forward his moderate agenda, guiding through immigration reform, making progress on climate change, and enacting his healthcare reforms.
The economic outlook has, mostly, held up. Unemployment is still falling and last week the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office forecast a deficit of $642bn in 2013, about $200bn lower than expected. Yet the news barely registered. Why? Because Washington is consumed with no fewer than three separate “scandals”, and Mr Obama’s Republican opponents, giddy at the prospect of a lame-duck President two years early, are even bandying such terms as “impeachment” and “Watergate”.
Republicans in the House are frustrated. They cannot pass laws on their own, because the Democrat-controlled Senate is in the way. The alternative is to identify potential wrongdoings by the executive branch and then use their powers, as is their right, to stage endless hearings and launch investigations. As a way at least to distract the enemy – Mr Obama – it is a strategy that can work well. And in a place as busy as the White House, mistakes, if not actual crimes, are sure to surface sooner or later.
And so they have. Not so new among them is the claim that, in the run-up to the November election, the administration airbrushed references to al-Qa’ida and terrorists out of its initial public reporting of what happened when the US ambassador and three others were killed at the US consulate in Benghazi on the anniversary of 9/11.
More recent are revelations that the Justice Department seized the telephone records of reporters at the Associated Press as it sought to find out who had been leaking national security secrets. As regards the first, most Americans appear bored. As for the second, they simply do not care.
Much trickier, though, is the admission by the Internal Revenue Service that it targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny when deciding whether or not to grant tax-free status. Republicans’ gleeful hand-rubbing is easy to understand. The first of what promises to be a long series of hearings opened on Capitol Hill last week, and tomorrow the powerful House Ways and Means Committee will take a first crack at the matter. If it can be proved that such groups were singled out for political reasons, the consequences could be severe, indeed.
The closer this issue gets to Mr Obama, the more dangerous it will become for him. Yesterday, Washington woke to news that his legal counsel learned of what had happened at the IRS in April – earlier than previously thought. The Tea Party, which was born of paranoia about nefarious, overweening government, feels vindicated. The galvanising effects on conservative voters in next year’s congressional elections could be significant.
The White House must tread a delicate course. The rumpus at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue cannot be entirely ignored. It is Mr Obama’s perceived aloofness – and the alleged arrogance of “big government” – that is partly fuelling it. But he also has the chance to demonstrate to the American people that his first priority is running the country – and improving their lives – while that of his opponents is political point-scoring and political vengeance. Get that balance right, and he may even emerge stronger. But it is a balance that will be hard to find.