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Obama's political survival: Three things he should do now

When it rains, it pours, so you would think President Obama could at least hold up an umbrella.
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
AP Photo/Chuck Burton

When it rains, it pours, so you would think President Obama could at least hold up an umbrella. His administration’s response to the deluge of scandals, real and imagined, that are drenching him has been pathetic.

It reminds me of the drills that kids a little older than me did at school during the Cold War: “Duck and Cover.” Crawling under the desk wouldn’t save 1950s kids from a nuclear bomb, and lame “Who me?” press conferences won’t protect the Obama White House from all the incoming fire.

Attorney General Eric Holder and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney were especially weak in their press briefings, with Holder claiming that all avenues of probing national security leaks had been “exhausted” before 100 Associated Press reporters were put under surveillance. This is absurd on its face.

In his Monday news conference, the president wasn’t much better. Pique at Republicans for obsessing over Benghazi talking points is no substitute for creative thinking on how to get out of this mess.

Summer is coming—high season for Washington scandals. There are fewer distractions in the dog days--and the witnesses sweat more.

To make matters worse, Obama is a second term president, which means he’s a lame duck and has his second-string players on the field with him. It was no coincidence that Watergate didn’t ignite until Richard Nixon’s fifth year in office. Same for Iran-contra in Ronald Reagan’s second term and impeachment in Bill Clinton’s. Just because some Republicans are hyperventilating with silly predictions about impeaching Obama doesn’t mean the situation isn’t serious for the president.

If he doesn’t pull it together, he risks the rest of his legislative agenda and his legacy.

So it’s time to call in reinforcements and prepare a battle plan that works:

APPOINT A SPECIAL PROSECUTOR FOR THE IRS: Special prosecutors were discredited during the 1990s when they become rogue elephants who rummaged around for years with no limits. There’s a reason the Office of Independent Counsel is now defunct.

But that doesn’t mean that special prosecutors can’t be useful, especially if asked to prepare their report and possible referrals for prosecution in, say, six months.  If they find partisan malfeasance or even mere bureaucratic incompetence, heads should roll.

Obama should ask a pair of former heads of the IRS to issue a report that gets to the bottom of how and why conservative groups were targeted. But the report should also explain how the tax-collectors let Karl Rove on the right and Bill Burton on the left get away with claiming their 501(c)4 organizations were engaged in “social welfare” when their purpose was explicitly political.

Rove’s Crossroads GPS, which would end up spending $70 million in untraceable money in 2012, told the IRS in a confidential filing in 2010 that it would focus on legislation and education and that influencing elections was “not the organization’s primary purpose.” This was flatly untrue. Such statements—from both sides of the spectrum—should be as much a part of the IRS probe as the singling out of Tea Party groups. The IRS should be chastised for underreaching—not enforcing the law-- as well as overreaching.

SCRAP THE COMFORT ZONE: Obama is famous for surrounding himself with people he’s comfortable with. This is a recipe for an uncreative, second-rate staff. It’s not that everyone in the White House is a sycophant; several can tell the boss hard truths. But they are mostly young and without their own independent careers, which means they operate almost as his surrogate children. This makes it easier for the president to disregard what they say. Obama needs people he’s a little uncomfortable with, who will challenge him as a peer. They have to be tough enough to not care whether he likes them or not.

BRING IN SOME ASS-KICKING WOMEN:  Old Washington hands can nominate their own candidates, from David Gergen to Paul Begala. My own nominees are a triumverate of tough women: Anita Dunn (a communications expert who worked on the 2008 campaign and came into the White House for a few months  in 2009), Stephanie Cutter (nicknamed “The Ninja” for slicing up Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign) and Mandy Grunwald (Hillary Clinton’s media consultant and a veteran of Bill Clinton’s partisan wars).

Republicans want Obama to just curl up and retreat from political combat, then resign like Nixon.

That isn’t going to happen. But to save his presidency he needs some fresh blood and he needs it now.

Jonathan Alter is an msnbc contributor and author of the new book "The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies."