President Obama had big plans for this second term, but they’ve been pulverized by a slew of controversies that have erupted all at once.
The White House’s defensive crouch only tightened after revelations last week about Top Secret government programs to track Americans’ phone and Internet activities.
In addition to justifying those programs, it must also resolve the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups, satisfy inquiries into the death last year of four U.S. officials in the Benghazi, Libya terrorist attack, and balance its claims of transparency with the Justice Department seizing the records of reporters at the Associated Press and Fox News who cover classified security issues.
The president tried instead on Friday to sell Obamacare’s rollout as a success, yet he had to devote a fair share of his appearance in San Jose, CA to a reporter’s question about the government accessing phone and Internet records.
“They make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity,” said Obama, adding that the National Security Agency and FBI programs are “under very strict supervision by all three branches of government and they do not involve listening to people’s phone calls, do not involve reading the e-mails of U.S. citizens and U.S. residents.”Content Production Newsletter Sign-up Code
But that response will likely do little to quiet an increasingly loud national uproar. Taken as a whole, these controversies have re-ignited the Tea Party movement, while also offending liberal supporters who believed that Obama would dismantle the national security state he inherited from George W. Bush.
Just about every president who serves a second term faces a scandal. But for a president who claims his agenda still revolves around fixing the budget and promoting economic opportunity, the sudden emergence of so many controversies at one time could soon prove inescapable for Obama.
His administration has issued denials about its knowledge of the Internal Revenue Service scrutinizing Tea Party groups. Obama claims questions from congressional Republicans about why his administration misrepresented the lethal attacks at a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya were simply political gamesmanship
He currently shrugs off questions about obtaining phone records from Verizon and a top-secret program named PRISM —as first reported by The Washington Post—extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, and other material from the servers of Apple, Google and Facebook, each of whom deny their participation.
THE TEA PARTY GETS ITS SECOND WIND
But the cumulative impact is a controversy that has re-empowered his ideological foes and offended the civil libertarians who bought into Obama’s message of hope and change back in 2008.
After testifying before Congress last week about being targeted by the IRS, Karen Kenney of the San Fernando Valley Patriots returned home to a voicemail box that filled up three times and hundreds of emails. She expects that attendance at her group’s monthly meeting will almost double to 90 people.
“It’s like ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’—only in the digital age,” Kenney told The Fiscal Times. “It has been gratifying and exhilarating. I first thought it was a Godzilla meets Bambi moment when the IRS was coming down on us, but now I don’t think so.”
Momentum from the Tea Party movement carried Republicans to the House majority in 2010, angered by the government rescue of banks during the financial crisis and the passage of the Affordable Care Act—nicknamed Obamacare—to increase the number of Americans with health insurance.
By the start of this year, the movement’s popularity had fallen to an all-time low. Just 23 percent of voters felt positive about Tea Partiers, while 47 percent had negative opinions, according to polling for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal. A follow-up survey released last week shows a decent rebound, with 26 percent feeling positive and 38 percent having negative associations.
The umbrella group Tea Party Patriots will hold an “Audit the IRS” rally in Washington on June 19. Andrew Langer, one of the scheduled speakers, said that Tea Party organizations—which tend to be structured on a county or regional level—began to emphasize local issues after the 2010 election.
“There is now enough going on where the focus has brought these local groups to looking at these national issues,” said Langer, president of the Washington-based Institute for Liberty.
The assorted scandals converge in a way that unites the Tea Party against its fears of an intrusive government.
Not only did the IRS direct its bureaucratic firepower at these groups, but under Obamacare the IRS also has the responsibility to impose tax penalties on Americans who elect not to have health coverage. The acquisition of phone and Internet material in bulk helps to justify their paranoia about the government building databases that contain dirt on anyone and everyone.
In short, Obama has accomplished something that Mitt Romney could not last year. He has helped galvanize small government conservatives to action.
“We are witnessing the arrogance of the political elite, the government feels it is entitled to know the minutiae of the lives of private citizens regardless of whether they are suspected or charged with a crime,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, whose group plans to kick off an educational initiative “to train citizens on how to exercise their basic constitutional rights.”
OVERREACH IS AN EQUAL OPPORTUNITY PROBLEM
This could also prove to be a blessing for Obama, if a repeat of Tea Partiers’ fury antagonizes other groups of voters. Pollster John Zogby said that the “Tea Party is a zero sum game for the GOP” because “the more the Tea Party rises, the more the GOP alienates the center.”
The real danger for him is if the controversy over the NSA phone and internet surveillance continues to mushroom in a way that leaves much of Obama’s own political base dispirited.
“In terms of NSA, it’s too soon to tell, but I’m sure he will take a hit on that [in his approval rating],” Zogby said. “That seems to be one thing that’s uniting liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. And that’s just scary stuff.”
The disclosure about the government’s monitoring of electronic communications inside the United States renews anxieties among Democratic lawmakers and liberal advocacy groups about Obama’s commitment to civil liberties. This is an especially sensitive issue after Obama’s reliance on drone killings and holding suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba reflect a continuation of Bush-era polices.
“Guantanamo is still open for business. News agencies are being targeted as part of a crackdown on whistleblowers,” Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Wall Street Journal last week. “The expanded use of drones, and now a massive surveillance program affecting millions of Americans raise the question as to whether the president’s rhetoric is fundamentally out of step with his policies and actions.”
The New York Times’ editorial page scolded Obama, saying the administration “has now lost all credibility on this issue.” Democrats such as California Sen. Dianne Feinstein have defended the president (“It’s called protecting America”), yet the disclosure occurs at a time when tremendous pessimism exists about the government itself.
Ross Baker, a political professor from Rutgers University, said he doesn’t see much room in the congressional calendar until the fall for any Obama initiative to get done, other than immigration reform and some executive branch nominations.
The president already had almost no juice with GOP lawmakers, but the NSA program might leave him with nothing but rinds among progressive Democrats who he also needs to pass any legislation.
“What the Republicans are doing to him is fully expected,” Baker said. “His problem with the left on these privacy and secrecy things are really going to be a problem. And in many ways the offended liberals and progressives are a bigger long term problem for him.”