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Obama struggles with rocky start to second term

By Tom Cohen, CNN
May 15, 2013 -- Updated 0045 GMT (0845 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • History shows second term presidents can make progress despite problems
  • Republicans are intent on focusing attention on administration controversies
  • The White House accuses the GOP of playing politics on some issues
  • One potential scandal involves the secret subpoena of journalists' phone records

Washington (CNN) -- Secretly accessing phone records of journalists. IRS targeting of conservative groups. Misleading statements last year about the Benghazi terrorist attack.

News headlines of the past week portray an administration engulfed in potential scandal, providing opponents of President Barack Obama with plenty of ammunition to try to derail his agenda in the early months of his second term.

The scenario invites comparisons to previous presidents who faced controversies in their "lame duck" second terms, such as the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration and Bill Clinton's impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

However, a rocky start to a second term doesn't mean certain derailment of a president's goals or agenda. For example, Reagan and Clinton both signed major fiscal legislation during their lame duck terms, noted Howard Kurtz, the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources."

Despite increasingly strident rhetoric from Republican leaders and others, White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted Tuesday the controversies have little connection to Obama's second-term agenda.

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"The president is focused on what he believes the American people expect from him and from their leaders in Washington," he told reporters, citing campaign issues from his re-election last November such as economic growth, expanded opportunities for the middle class and immigration reform.

In question is whether Republicans intent on focusing attention on potential scandal will be willing to work with Obama and Democrats on such major legislation. Already, the president has seen stiff GOP opposition derail gun legislation he proposed in the aftermath of the Connecticut school massacre.

Full details of the controversies remain unknown, but the issues are certain to continue to dominate Washington in coming days.

Carney spoke as Attorney General Eric Holder announced a Justice Department investigation of whether any laws were broken in the IRS political targeting. Congress also is looking into the matter, with a House committee hearing scheduled for Friday.

The embattled Holder, cited for contempt of Congress by House Republicans during Obama's first term over the botched "Fast and Furious" gun walking program, also confirmed that he recused himself last year from his department's investigation of classified leaks that led to the recent secret subpoenas of telephone logs of The Associated Press.

According to the AP, U.S. officials have said they were probing how details were leaked in May 2012 about a foiled bomb plot that targeted a U.S.-bound aircraft, and that the Justice Department collected two months of telephone records for some AP reporters and editors without notifying the news organization.

The Republican National Committee called for Obama to demand Holder's resignation over the matter. If not, said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, it will show that "the president of the United States believes his administration is above the Constitution and does not respect the role of a free press."

Even Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada condemned the secret subpoena of AP phone records.

"I don't know who did it, or why it was done, but it's inexcusable, and there's no way to justify this," Reid told reporters.

Meanwhile, Republican senators characterized the IRS political targeting as a broad abuse of power by the administration.

"I have never seen anything quite like this except in the past during the Nixon years," veteran Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told reporters in an allusion to the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon's impeachment and resignation.

Carney rejected such GOP statements as political hyperbole, but also sought to distance the administration from the roiling issues.

"I understand the natural inclination to try to bunch some of these things together, but there really is a distinction here," he said.

He refused to discuss specific details of the Justice Department's subpoena of AP telephone records, citing the ongoing criminal investigation of the classified leak. At the same time, he described Obama as desiring a balance between protecting classified information vital to national security and the First Amendment right of a free and unfettered press.

Carney also avoided specific comment on IRS political targeting, saying it would be inappropriate until the upcoming release of an inspector general's report on the matter. He noted Obama's remarks to reporters on Monday that if the reported allegations of political targeting proved true, they would be "outrageous" and require immediate action against those responsible.

However, Carney criticized the continuing GOP focus on the administration's response in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack last September 11 as a "sideshow that's driven purely by or largely by political interests."

The Benghazi issue has renewed GOP criticism of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, considered the certain Democratic frontrunner if she decides to run for president in 2016.

In particular, Republicans accuse the administration of not bolstering security prior to the attack, of botching the response to it, and of misleading the public in its slow-to-evolve explanation of events less than two months before the November election.

After the GOP-led House Oversight Committee held a hearing last week on the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, Republican politicians and organizations launched a campaign that sought to raise questions about Clinton's role as the nation's top diplomat at the time.

An independent review of the Benghazi incident, led by Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and former ambassador Thomas Pickering, found no wrongdoing by Clinton.

CNN's Chief National Correspondent John King noted that history shows popular politicians can overcome links to scandal.

In 1988, Democrats tried to use the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration, which involved weapons sales to Iran that funded anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua, against then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, he said.

The scandal involved an attempted cover-up, televised congressional hearings, criminal charges and resignations, but in the end, Bush won the presidential vote.

CNN's Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

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