When two storms collide, the weather gets hairy. For President Obama, the IRS and Benghazi stories converged this weekend for a self-inflicted tempest that threatens his credibility.
His people can’t get their stories straight.
Internal Revenue Service officials denied for months the targeting of conservative political groups for reviews of their tax exempt status. With investigators poised to expose the chilling operation, a high-ranking IRS official acknowledged it late last week and apologized for it.
The agency blamed low-level employees, saying no high-level officials were aware. That appears to be untrue. The Associated Press reported Saturday that senior IRS officials knew agents were targeting tea party groups as early as 2011, according to a draft of an inspector general's report.
Politicizing the IRS threatens the integrity of an agency entrusted with Americans' secrets and the taxes that fund government. It also fuels the paranoia of conspiracy theorists.
"This is outrageous," said Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis. "The administration and the president need to condem this and act immediately. This is not a right-left issue."
Several other Democratic allies of the White House expressed similiar sentiments while refusing to be named out of fear of retribution. Kofinis, who specializes in political communications, said the White House needs to explain itself. "Your first response can't be to say the IRS is an independent agency," a claim the White House has made, he said.
Later, at a White House news conference, Obama forcefully denounced the IRS actions as "outrageous" and said people will be held accountable.
On Benghazi, the president’s U.N. ambassador said five days after the Libya attack that the incident grew out of a street protest rather than a terrorist attack. Caught fudging the facts in the middle of a presidential campaign, a race in which Obama’s anti-terrorism record was a major selling point, the White House blamed Ambassador Susan Rice’s statement on “talking points” concocted by the CIA in virtual isolation.
Obama’s team stuck with that story until the truth was exposed amid a GOP congressional investigation. Emails leaked to news organizations last week show that both the White House and State Department were directly involved in scrubbing the CIA talking points of any mention of past threats and al-Qaida involvement. That is the exact opposite of what the Obama White House had claimed.
Inexplicably, White House spokesman Jay Carney refused late Friday to acknowledge the contradiction.
Even worse, Obama himself ignored his administration's obfuscations today, and instead called the debate over shifting explanations "a sideshow." At the news conference, he turned the tables on GOP critics and accused them of playing "political games."
Why does this matter? Because a president’s credibility matters. President Bush’s second term effectively ended when Americans grew tired of his administration’s spinning and dissembling over Iraq and Katrina. They stopped trusting him. They stopped listening to him. He no longer had the moral authority to lead.
It’s far too early in this perfect storm of controversy to condemn Obama to Bush’s fate, but he and his advisers face a credibility crisis. Obama missed a chance on Benghazi today to convince Americans that he is still worthy of their trust.
To do so, he may need to do more than to promise to bolster embassy security and to shut down the IRS targeting operation. He may need to forcefully condemn the half-truths and distortions disseminated under his name.
He may need to fire people who can’t get his story straight.
UPDATE: Original story was updated with Obama news conference.