Obama Ponders Time Left in Office as Probes Pile Up

BY Christina Bellantoni  May 14, 2013 at 9:25 AM EDT

President Barack Obama; photo by Pete Marovich/Pool/Getty Images

President Obama walks across the South Lawn of the White House Monday night after arriving from New York City where he attended two Democratic fundraisers. Photo by Pete Marovich/Pool/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

“My intentions over the next three-and-a-half years are to govern.”

That was President Barack Obama telling some of the Democratic Party’s top donors how he is reflecting on a second term, barely a few months into the job.

“[Y]ou also start just thinking about history, and you start thinking in longer sweeps of time, and you start saying to yourself that the three-and-a-half years that I’ve got is not a lot, and so I’ve got to make sure that I use everything I’ve got to make as much of a difference as I can,” he said.

It was, perhaps, Mr. Obama’s way of letting his frustration over issues his administration has frequently dubbed “distractions” be known. Over the last few days, major dustups have surfaced over the handling of the September attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and the Internal Revenue Service putting additional requirements on conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

A few hours before venting at the swanky fundraiser in New York City on Monday, Mr. Obama had addressed the dual challenges of the moment, telling reporters one was a huge deal and the other was a manufactured issue.

Mr. Obama said if the IRS had placed extra scrutiny on tea party groups, “That’s outrageous, and they have to be held fully accountable.”

That was before reports surfaced that the Justice Department had seized phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors as part of a probe into leaked information. The government “seized the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012″ as it investigated who gave the AP details about a foiled terror plot as outlined in this story.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters traveling with the president in New York Monday night that questions should be directed to the Justice Department, which isn’t answering questions.

“Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP. We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department,” Carney said.

The trio of administration examinations is giving Mr. Obama’s critics on Capitol Hill plenty of fodder for investigations that by any measure will pull the White House away from the issues it would like to see championed this spring and summer: immigration reform and another crack at gun control legislation. (Not to mention that whole government spending thing, complicated Tuesday by a new furlough decision coming from the Pentagon.)

On Benghazi, the president told reporters there is “no ‘there’ there” and dismissed the question of revised talking points as a “sideshow” and contributing to a “political circus” that dishonors hard-working diplomats in the middle of a tough assignment.

“What we have been very clear about throughout was that immediately after this event happened we were not clear who exactly had carried it out, how it had occurred, what the motivations were. It happened at the same time as we had seen attacks on U.S. embassies in Cairo as a consequence of this film. And nobody understood exactly what was taking place during the course of those first few days,” Mr. Obama said.

“[T]he fact that this keeps on getting churned out, frankly, has a lot to do with political motivations,” Mr. Obama said. “We’ve had folks who have challenged Hillary Clinton’s integrity, Susan Rice’s integrity, Mike Mullen and Tom Pickering’s integrity. It’s a given that mine gets challenged by these same folks. They’ve used it for fundraising.”

A fresh batch of voter surveys from the left-leaning Public Policy Polling and from the Pew Research Center shows Americans are not very interested in the Benghazi probe. Pew’s poll found 44 percent of Americans say they are following the hearings very or fairly closely, virtually unchanged from late January when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified.

The Washington Post’s Scott Wilson looked at the president’s frustration in a story Tuesday, finding, “Events and the web of questions surrounding them are forcing the president to respond, often defensively and sometimes angrily, at a time when he would rather be setting the terms of the country’s political conversation.” Wilson writes:

Political power ebbs more quickly for a second-term president, who usually has only until the next midterm elections to work his will in Washington. After setbacks on gun-control legislation and fiscal negotiations, that time is being absorbed by issues at the edges of Obama’s ability to control.

Indeed, before a Manhattan crowd that included Justin Timberlake, Jessica Biel and Tommy Hilfiger, the president also bemoaned “a sort of hyper-partisanship in Washington that I was, frankly, hoping to overcome in 2008.”

He said he is “persistent,” adding: “I genuinely believe there are Republicans out there who would like to work with us but they’re fearful of their base and they’re concerned about what Rush Limbaugh might say about them. And as a consequence we get the kind of gridlock that makes people cynical about government.”

The IRS story continues to swell with new reports of potential misconduct.

The Washington Post reports that the conduct may have gone far past the Cincinnatti office tasked with handling tax-status requests.

ProPublica was out Monday night with a blockbuster story: “The same IRS office that deliberately targeted conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status in the run-up to the 2012 election released nine pending confidential applications of conservative groups to ProPublica late last year.”

Conservative blogger Mary Katherine Ham rounded up some of the over-the-top questions that IRS officials were asking the groups.

At the press availability Monday, the president said he does not want the IRS “ever being perceived to be biased and anything less than neutral in terms of how they operate.”

“I’ve got no patience with it, I will not tolerate it,” Mr. Obama said.

On Monday’s NewsHour, we laid out the story in detail, and Judy Woodruff spoke with Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative talk radio host and former IRS attorney who is representing 27 tea party groups hoping to get tax-exempt status. He outlined what he found was “unconstitutional” behavior by the IRS.

We also had a Duke University law professor explaining how the tax code works and what the groups were seeking.

Watch the discussion segment here or below:

And you can watch the president’s full news conference here or below.

LINE ITEMS

  • Minnesota Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is prepared to sign the law allowing same-sex marriages in the state, the 12th to do so.

  • The Washington Post profiles Lois Lerner, who has become the face of the tea party IRS scandal.

  • Politico’s Seung Min Kim previews Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee immigration markup, which will focus on a newly proposed guest worker program.

  • The Washington Post’s David Nakamura explores the monitoring of foreign students in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.

  • Democratic Sen. Al Franken remains unchallenged in Minnesota after GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen declined to run for Senate or governor.

  • American Bridge 21st Century’s “Bridge Project” is out with a new video called “Karl Rove’s Decade of Deception.” It focuses on the Republican’s political point-scoring on national security issues.

  • Well this could get awkward. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is heading to Boston next week to headline an exclusive fundraiser for GOP nominee Gabriel Gomez. The Navy SEAL veteran initially reported voting for Mr. Obama in 2008, but now says he cast his vote for McCain in the general election after donating to Mr. Obama during the primary.

  • Virginia GOP Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe are waging separate campaigns on the homefront and across the country as the national parties seek to use 2013 to redefine themselves ahead of the 2014 cycle.

  • Apparently frustrated at what she sees as the leadership’s inability to get things done, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, “If he were a woman, they’d be calling him the weakest speaker in history.”

  • New Jersey’s Bergen Record reports that even though Sen. Bob Menendez “promised a year ago while running for reelection that he would donate $18,800 to two charities after a Franklin Lakes insurance broker pleaded guilty to using ‘straw donors’ to make illegal payments to the senator’s campaign,” he still hasn’t gotten rid of the tainted cash.

  • Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio’s Reclaim America PAC is out with a new ad defending Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., against attacks from Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

  • Former Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Rick Santorum pens an essay on the occassion of his daughter Bella’s fifth birthday. She has a genetic abnormality called trisomy 18.

  • In his weekly “Texas Straight Talk” column, former GOP Rep. Ron Paul argued that the Benghazi talking points are not a story, but illustrate why the United States should not have an “interventionist” foreign policy.

  • As part of her campaign’s effort to soften her image, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn reached out to the New York Times to share her experience with alcoholism and bulimia.

  • Former Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota will not run for the Senate seat left open by Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson’s retirement.

  • Sequestration could make it more difficult for federal agencies to fight forest fires.

  • The Sunlight Foundation reports almost 600 political donors gave more than the $117,000 limit for federal campaigns in the last election cycle.

  • Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin holds a slim lead in a Republican poll of potential GOP challengers to Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in 2014.

  • North Miami mayoral candidate Anna Pierre says she is endorsed by Jesus Christ.

  • Kate Hinds and Andrea Bernstein of WNYC present a thorough investigation on how planning mistakes led to more than $120 million of damage to New Jersey Transit trains during Superstorm Sandy.

  • Adorable, or revolting? You decide.

  • Nation, you can breathe easier now. Jack Bauer is coming back next summer.

  • Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., reminds us why female members of the press and female lawmakers wake up so early to practice softball.

NEWSHOUR ROUNDUP

  • Judy is moderating a Google Hangout with Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen on Tuesday. Submit your questions for the Google guys using the hashtag digital age!

  • Jeff Brown talks with Marcia Coyle about the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision siding with agri-giant Monsanto.

  • Cindy Huang set out to tell the human stories behind immigration policy. She delivers this multimedia project filled with rich storytelling and gripping images.

TOP TWEETS

Terence Burlij and desk assistant Simone Pathe contributed to this report.

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Questions or comments? Email Christina Bellantoni at cbellantoni-at-newshour-dot-org.

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