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Obama tries to refocus on legislative agenda

The trifecta of scandals that consumed the White House's attention this month briefly receded as the country focused on Monday’s monster tornado in Oklahoma.
President Barack Obama speaks about his administration's drone and counterterrorism policies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, May 23, 2013. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama speaks about his administration's drone and counterterrorism policies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, May 23, 2013.

The trifecta of scandals that consumed the White House's attention this month briefly receded as the country focused on Monday’s monster tornado in Oklahoma. The storm flattened neighborhoods, crushed businesses, and destroyed an elementary school. Two dozen people were killed--many of them children. And while most Americans focused on the horror or the heroes in Oklahoma, in Washington, some Republicans politicized the distribution of federal disaster relief. President Obama promised Oklahoma residents that they'll get every resource they need from the federal government.

The president also spent much of the week trying to revive his legislative agenda–which looked all-but-doomed following the Internal Revenue Service scandal, a fresh round of Benghazi hearings, and the Department of Justice’s decision to seize phone records of Associated Press journalists. This was a pivotal moment for the president, who is seeking to keep his second term moving forward.

Here's how the week played out.

First, Oklahoma: At a news conference on Tuesday, Obama spoke forcefully, intent on showing leadership and engagement—traits that critics said he lacked during scandalpalozza. Besides promising aid, Obama pointed to American resilience in the face of other natural disasters that have struck the nation, including in Joplin, Mo., Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Breezy Point, N.Y. He also mentioned Boston, which was rocked by twin bombings at last month’s marathon.

“In some cases there will be enormous grief that has to be absorbed, but you will not travel that path alone. Your country will travel with you, Obama said. “We are a nation that stands with our fellow citizens as long as it takes.” The president will travel to the tornado-ravaged town of Moore on Sunday to survey the twister’s devastation and to meet with survivors.

Next up, immigration reform: The president is urging lawmakers to pass a final plan after the bill cleared a major hurdle in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. “None of the committee members got everything they wanted and neither did I, but in the end, we all owe it to the American people to get the best possible result over the finish line,” said Obama after the vote.

The proposal that passed–after weeks of hearings--beefs up border security and would allow the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship. The 13-5 vote occurred only after panel chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy agreed to drop a provision allowing gay Americans to seek green cards for their same-sex spouses or partners.

Republicans had made clear they would not support a bill that included the LGBT visa proposal. The trade-off was painful for many Democrats (and perhaps also for Obama) but it kept alive the prospect of achieving immigration reform. The full Senate is expected to begin debating the bill next month.

The IRS scandal continues to simmer, amid Congressional hearings on the tax collection agency's targeting of conservative groups before the 2012 election. Obama says he was unaware of the practice, and the White House seemingly offered a new account of how and when it learned the IRS was specially scrutinizing certain groups.

Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday that White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler told White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, along with other top officials, about the IRS’ findings nearly a month ago. Ruemmler decided the information should not be delivered to the president because the inspector general’s report had not been released. Previously, the White House said they did not know about the targeting until the report was released last week.

And then, on Wednesday, Lois Lerner, the IRS official who heads the tax-exempt division at the IRS, invoked her constitutional right to not testify as a witness at a House Oversight committee hearing. She insisted, however, that “I have not done anything wrong.” She quickly came under fire from Republicans for not elaborating on her role.

The White House, still reeling from headlines that the Department of Justice issued subpoenas for AP phone records while investigating the disclosure of classified information having to do with a CIA operation in Yemen, was dealt another blow, too: it was revealed that the DOJ sought a warrant in 2010 to inspect the private emails of Fox News correspondent James Rosen as well.

On Thursday, Obama had a chance to make news rather than react to it, giving a major speech on national security. He repeated his call to close the controversial detention facility in Guantanamo Bay where more than 100 detainees are on a hunger strike. He also defended the use of drones, insisting that the tactic is both effective and legal. “We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war—a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.” The remarks come as Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged for the first time that the U.S. killed four Americans in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, including Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Muslim cleric.

Obama made the case that drones were the best available option in certain circumstances. “For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen--with a drone or with a shotgun--without due process. Nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil," he said. "But when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens, and when neither the United States nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot, his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team," he said, referring to al-Awlaki, who planned a Christmas Day 2009 bombing of a plane over Detroit.

Obama said he’s asked his administration to review proposals to extend oversight of drone strikes and wants to work with Congress on establishing an independent court to review future potential strikes.

In the Thursday speech Obama discussed the future of Gitmo. As a candidate, Obama promised to close the Guantanamo detention center. The fact that it remains open--holding detainees who have been cleared or never charged, and with increasing concerns about the force-feeding of hunger-strikers--is seen by many in the president's progressive base as the most significant disappointment of his presidency.

During his foreign policy speech, Obama repeated his call for Congress to close the prison camp. He announced he would lift (his own) moratorium on transferring the prison’s Yemeni detainees to their home country. But he didn't disavow the practice of indefinite detention.

Even with the human rights questions that remained unanswered, the national security speech was a strong performance. Obama--with his speech about race and Rev. Wright, his defense of "just wars" when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize--has shown an ability to communicate complex ideas to the public with nuance and authority.

He is also apparently benefiting from optimism about the economy: despite the messy week, Obama's approval rating stayed above 50%.

The next few weeks will be full of more tests for the president as he seeks to regain control of the political conversation. He will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping early next month in California to discuss cyber security and North Korea's nuclear ambitions. He'll also visit Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. And there's nothing like an exotic backdrop to produce some fresh headlines--even as his political opponents show no sign of letting go of the old ones.