Under pressure to show who's boss, President Obama called a press conference late Wednesday to say he was “angry” that the IRS singled out conservative groups for extra vetting and to announce that the agency’s acting commissioner had been forced out.
"It's inexcusable, and Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it," he said. "I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives."
About one hour earlier, the White House released 100 pages of internal e-mails that detailed the debate among the White House, State Department, FBI, and CIA over the “talking points” used by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice following the attacks last fall on a consulate in Benghazi that left four Americans dead.
The hasty moves by the White House were clearly aimed at reversing the impression—heavily promoted by Republican critics—that President Obama had responded passively to a series of scandals enveloping his administration. In arguably the most difficult week in Obama’s second term, the administration has grappled with embarrassing revelations that the IRS targeted tea-party groups, that the Benghazi talking points were revised a dozen times, and that the Justice Department seized the phone records of journalists investigating a failed terrorism plot.
Obama's former deputy press secretary, Bill Burton, said the president did the right thing by making a forceful statement on national television. "There are things that happen outside the control of the president, and to the extent that the president is able to take control of the situation, it's remarkably helpful," he said.
The brief press conference, however, did not satisfy Republicans who have mocked Obama for being unaware of the malfeasance at the IRS and Justice Department. "The president still owes Americans—especially the targeted groups—an apology," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in a statement shortly after the president spoke. "Ultimately, he should take responsibility for what happened and stop avoiding the tough questions.”
Even Democrats acknowledge that the “no drama Obama” mandate that kept the candidate on track in his 2008 campaign has at times worked against effective governing and crisis management. The president can come across as too cool and cautious, leading to criticism that he wasn’t aggressive enough, for example, after the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s also been criticized for not engaging enough with members of Congress, even Democrats.
White House veterans say somewhere in between Ronald Reagan’s detached style and Jimmy Carter’s micromanaging is the sweet spot for presidential management.
“You cannot become obsessive about these things, nor can you become dismissive,” said Paul Begala, a former adviser to President Clinton. “There are legitimate lines of inquiry. You have to take them seriously and get everything out there, the quicker the better.”
Though Obama said he learned about the IRS’s politically motivated tactics on Friday, he waited until Monday to address the scandal—weeks after his general counsel was informed—and allowed only one question at a press conference. His response was phlegmatic, even though the IRS had already admitted wrongdoing. "If you've got the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and nonpartisan way, then that is outrageous," Obama said, suggesting the allegations were still unproven. "It is contrary to our traditions. And people have to be held accountable, and it's got to be fixed."
Asked about whether the administration misled the public after the attacks in Benghazi, Obama was dismissive. “The fact that this keeps on getting churned out, frankly, has a lot to do with political motivations,” he said, refusing to acknowledge the administration’s muddled response to whether the killings of four Americans amounted to a terrorist attack.
Obama’s former press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said in an interview on Tuesday with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that the president should have addressed the IRS scandal more quickly and used “more vivid language.” He said, "Sounds exceedingly passive to me."
David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to the president, agreed with that assessment Wednesday. “I think it’s good to express outrage,” he said in an interview with MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “The language could have been more vivid and perhaps he should have come out on Saturday. But at the end of the day one of the things that is true about the president is he is cautious and often wants to see what he’s commenting on before he comments on it.”
In an interview with National Journal, Axelrod suggested that micromanagement from the president could lead to more problems. What if the president had known what the IRS or Justice Department was doing? “That really would have been a scandal!” Axelrod said. “It's not unreasonable to want to fully understand the facts before acting. Stagecraft issues aside, prudence doesn't equal detachment.”
He and other White House veterans say it’s unrealistic for a president to know everything that’s happening in the vast, tangled web that is the federal government. “The president is managing the world’s largest enterprise. It would be ridiculous for him to be engaged in that level of oversight,” said Matt Bennett, who cofounded the Third Way think tank after working in the Clinton White House. “You don’t want your president micromanaging, and I think Obama strikes a very good balance between that and being informed.”
It’s possible Obama’s reaction to the scandals riding his administration might have been different if his former hard-charging press secretary and chief of staff, Gibbs and Rahm Emanuel, had not been replaced by the more even-keeled Jay Carney and Denis McDonough. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, has a tendency to sound academic.
“His default mechanism is Obama the professor,” said Fred Greenstein, a retired Princeton University politics professor and the author of two books on presidential leadership. “He doesn’t get steamed up or fly into a rage. He’s a pretty balanced guy. He’s not going to press the nuclear button but on the other hand, people want to have a strong sense that he’s actively working to solve a problem.”
Just as the president sought to address criticism of his response to the IRS scandal with the Wednesday night press conference, he has tried in recent weeks to address criticism that he is not engaged enough with Congress. He and top advisers have made a show of dining several times with Republican and Democratic members.
Shoring up the relationships is only part of the problem. The president is in a bind when it comes to trying to shape major legislation such as immigration reform because if he gets too heavily involved, conservative Republicans are likely to balk. What's more, the scandals at the IRS and Justice Department could distract the president from immigration and other big issues of his second term, including reaching a deficit-reduction deal and implementing the new health care law.
“He can’t let the Washington chattering class distract from his mission,” said Capitol Hill lobbyist Steve Elmendorf. “Every administration has these kind of distractions and they need to be managed and dealt with and not get thrown off his game.”
A few hours before the press conference, Obama met with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to discuss immigration reform.
Michael Catalini contributed