Editorial: It’s up to Obama to fix this mess
Richard Nixon’s second term as president ended in political tragedy because of Watergate. Ronald Reagan’s second term was hamstrung by the Iran-Contra scandal, and Bill Clinton’s was crippled by personal misbehavior that led to impeachment proceedings.
We recite this sad litany not to equate any of these episodes with two disturbing developments this week out of Washington, but to make the point that even the most popular presidents can be undone by second-term scandals of their administration’s own making – and that the responsibility for avoiding such misfortune again rests squarely with President Obama.
The first of these developments broke last weekend, with the disclosure that the IRS had singled out conservative groups for additional scrutiny while processing thousands of requests for tax-exempt status under a provision of tax law that is, indeed, prone to abuse for political purposes.
According to the Washington Post, of the 298 groups identified for extra scrutiny, 72 had “tea party” in the name, 13 had “patriot” and 11 had names that referenced conservative commentator Glenn Beck. The Wall Street Journal reports that groups concerned with government spending, debt and taxes were also targeted. Obama promptly called this outrageous, and appropriately so.
But, as is too often the case with Washington misdeeds, the original sin isn’t the only issue. Just hours after Obama condemned the practice, word broke that an IRS commissioner and his interim successor learned of the targeting in 2012 – an election year, if you’ll recall – but didn’t disclose it when Republican congressmen, prompted by targeted groups, asked about the practice.
How serious is this? Serious enough that, on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a criminal investigation into the matter.
Sadly enough, in the same news conference, Holder was called upon to defend a damaging decision by his own agency, the Justice Department. Charged with investigating a leak that led to an Associated Press news report last year about a counter-terrorism action in Yemen, Holder’s deputy attorney general approved a subpoena seeking four weeks of AP records for 20 telephone lines, including the home or personal cell phone numbers of editors and reporters, as well as several AP office numbers.
Holder said the leaks put Americans at risk. We’re not in a position to judge that, though surely the AP – like any responsible news organization – weighed that concern carefully before deciding that publishing the story was in the public’s interest.
What’s especially concerned is the breadth of the subpoena. In protesting what it called an “unprecedented intrusion” into its news gathering, the AP noted that the Justice Department had taken no steps “to narrow the scope of its subpoena to matters actually relevant to an ongoing investigation.”
We suspect that, given the partisan dimension of the IRS targeting, it’s more likely to cause persistent political trouble for the administration. But what both unfortunately suggest is that the administration will use – and perhaps, misuse – its investigative and regulatory powers to intimidate those who question its policies.
We believe Obama is better than that. Through words and deeds in days to come, he needs to make that clear to those who work for him, and to the nation.