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His second term at stake, Obama finally steps up

After a week of withering attacks from politicians, journalists and the public, the White House moved dramatically to get off the defensive.
President Barack Obama REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Barack Obama REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

After a week of withering attacks from politicians, journalists and the public, the White House moved dramatically to get off the defensive. President Obama went in front of the cameras Wednesday evening to discuss his actions on the Internal Revenue Service scandal. His forceful announcement was part of an effort to wrest  control of three issues that have battered his administration: the IRS scandal, Benghazi, and the Justice Department’s decision to seize phone records of Associated Press journalists. The political firestorm threatened to engulf Obama's second term.

It's been a disastrous week for Obama, with the president lambasted by Republicans and Democrats alike not just for the IRS and AP records scandals themselves but  also for appearing passive and reactive in dealing with them.

Jon Stewart skewered the president's apparent disengagement. Other critics tossed around words like "Nixonian" about the Justice Department's secret probe of the AP. And it didn't help that Attorney General Eric Holder and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney performed badly when grilled by journalists at press conferences, with their responses judged as insufficient if not downright evasive.

The Republican National Committee capitalized on the administration’s bad week with a new fundraising appeal charging that the president was failing to live up to his promises of government transparency. The RNC video, “Demand Transparency,” tells views to “demand the truth” and “demand accountability.”

If Obama could not staunch the criticism and change the headlines, he was in danger of being permanently weakened. Democrats worried that his ambitious second-term agenda--gun control, immigration reform and a budget deal--would be imperiled.

But the administration, clearly in crisis mode, finally moved decisively to demonstrate competence and transparency. Obama gave two news conferences this week and said he would field questions on Thursday at a conference with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On Wednesday, the president said he backed a federal shield law for reporters seeking to protect their confidential sources. The White House asked Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer to reintroduce a shield law he proposed in 2009. It says reporters do not have to disclose the names of confidential sources or their means of communicating with them.  Schumer told reporters that he had been thinking about introducing the bill over the past few days, but then he got the go-ahead from the White House.

"We were planning to resurrect it and had been working on it the last day or two. And this morning, coincidentally, the White House called," said the New York lawmaker. Carney said at a news conference on Wednesday that “The White House has been in contact with Sen. Schumer and we are glad to see that legislation will be reintroduced because [Obama] believes strongly we need to provide protections to the media."

The move was in response to critics ripping the Justice Department for issuing a subpoena for the AP’s phone records and investigating the disclosure of classified information having to do with a CIA operation in Yemen to stop a bomb plot. The AP wrote a story about it in May 2012. Outrage over the probe this week was so intense that more than 50 media companies, including NBCUniversal, sent a letter to Holder objecting to the Justice Department’s subpoena of AP phone records. The letter repeated the AP’s request that the DOJ return the records and destroy the existing copies of them.

Second, in effort to hit back at Republicans claiming the Obama administration is involved in covering up last year’s deadly assault in Benghazi, the White House  made public more than 100 pages of emails detailing correspondence that led to the editing of talking points used by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on several Sunday talk shows in September.

Previously, a few of the emails had been released, but nothing like the document dump on Wednesday, which shows a fuller picture of officials struggling with just what information to release in the days after the attack.

According to NBC’s Peter Alexander, the emails indicate that then-CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell expressed similar concerns to State Department officials that the same intelligence analysts who drafted the original talking  points were okay with the language in the edits. Republicans have claimed the talking points were an attempt by the Obama administration to portray the attacks as stemming from a protest and not an organized terrorist attack.

Related: White House releases more emails related to Benghazi response

The GOP had put out its own version of the events first, which added to the perception that the administration was attempting a cover-up and essentially forced Wednesday's unprecedented release of emails.

And finally, on the IRS, Obama announced at the White House that his administration sought and accepted Steven Miller’s resignation as interim IRS commissioner.  The resignation was requested by Treasury Secretary Lew at the president’s behest. And meanwhile, Holder has announced a criminal investigation into the matter.

Speaking emphatically, Obama said the actions of IRS officials who targeted conservative groups for additional scrutiny were “inexcusable,” adding, “Americans have a right to be angry and I’m angry about it.” The president also promised to work "hand in hand" with Congress to further its oversight of the IRS and to make sure such actions are never taken again. (Later reports showed that the IRS scrutinized some liberal groups as well.)

“I will not tolerate this behavior in any agency but especially the IRS–given the power and reach it has in all our lives… It should not matter what political stripe you’re from, the fact of the matter is the IRS has to operate with absolute integrity," said Obama.

“Across the board everybody believes that what happened in the IG report is an outrage. The good news is that it’s fixable,” he said. ”I’ll do everything in my power to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”

Republicans immediately criticized Obama's initiatives. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said the Benghazi emails raise more "questions about the motivations of these changes and who at the State Department were seeking them." He added: "This release is long overdue and there are relevant documents the administration has still refused to produce. We hope, however, that this limited release of documents is a sign of more cooperation to come."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell released a skeptical statement on Obama's response to the IRS mess, saying "If the president is as concerned about this issue as he claims, he'll work openly and transparently with Congress to get to the bottom of the scandal--no stonewalling, no half-answers, no withholding of witnesses."

The GOP response was predictable. What matters--and will become clear in the next days and weeks--is whether the president has succeeded in countering the view that he's the weak leader of an ineffective or untrustworthy administration.