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Will scandals stall Obama agenda?

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
May 18, 2013 -- Updated 0057 GMT (0857 HKT)
John Avlon, Margaret Hoover, Dean Obeidallah
John Avlon, Margaret Hoover, Dean Obeidallah
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN Radio podcast features CNN Opinion contributors on top three stories
  • They say administration facing scandals, including over AP phone records, IRS scrutiny
  • Rep. Keith Ellison says he's "cautiously optimistic" legislation can still go forward
  • They discuss Jolie mastectomy and say her revelation is celebrity leveraged for good

Editor's note: John Avlon, a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, is the author of "Independent Nation" and "Wingnuts." He won the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' award for best online column in 2012.

(CNN) -- This week on "The Big Three," we take a look at what might have been Obama's worst week ever -- as a negative trifecta of scandals threaten to overwhelm his administration and derail his ambitious legislative agenda. We get a reality check with special guest, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. And no talk about the biggest stories of the week would be complete without a conversation about Angelina Jolie's decision to have a preemptive double mastectomy and the message it sends to millions.

The scandals outweighed what might have otherwise have been regarded as a stretch of good news for Obama on the economy, with the Dow hitting historic highs and the Congressional Budget Office prediciing this week that the budget deficit will shrink to $642 billion.

But these stories were quickly eclipsed.

Benghazi looked bad enough. But the unwelcome addition of the IRS and Associated Press phone scandals have outraged even administration allies and led some critics to suggest that the second-term president's agenda is now stalled.

Let's look at the IRS first. It's nobody favorite agency but the news that agents has inappropriately singled out conservative groups for additional scrutiny when applying for tax exempt status sent ripples of outrage through the political landscape. The fact that an inspector general report found no connection to the White House and that none of the conservative groups were ultimately denied tax-exempt status provided cold comfort because of the chilling effect of the inquiry.

The president fired the acting head of the IRS and a second high-ranking official, but congressional hearings are looming. (For some fun fireworks, Margaret disagrees with my prescription for the problem: more IRS investigations on partisan political groups applying for tax-exempt status, with the crucial exception that those inquiries should be scrupulously nonpartisan.)

The second scandal hit the press where it lived. The Associated Press was informed this week that the Justice Department had subpoenaed reporters' phone records over a leak that the attorney general, Eric Holder, said compromised national security and lives. That Republicans had initially demanded the investigation for what they called election-year grandstanding by the Obama administration on its record against al-Qaeda did not stop their condemnation. But now that the press has found its privacy compromised, my guess is that there will be new scrutiny on this issue. The administration's response was a renewed push for the media shield law. But make no mistake -- neither of these scandals is over.

The big question is whether they will derail the president's legislative agenda -- specifically, the goal of passing bipartisan immigration reform. Dean introduces our guest this week on "The Big Three," Rep. Ellison, D-Minnesota, who describes himself as "cautiously optimistic" on the chance for legislation to still move through in this polarized, hyperpartisan environment. His remarks offer a helpful and hopeful reality check from the perspective of someone working inside the Capitol.

Carney: Pres. believes in 1st Amend.

Finally, Angelina Jolie. Margaret leads this conversation about a new awareness about decisions women can make, armed with the information provided by genetic testing. Jolie was able to determine that she had an overwhelmingly high chance of developing breast cancer and so the actress often described as "the sexiest woman in the world" opted to have a double mastectomy.

Beyond the issues of science and women's health, we all agree that Jolie's courageous actions are a positive example of how to leverage celebrity for the greater good. The Lohans and Beibers of the world should take notes. It's a rare example of our celebrity-gossip-obsessed culture actually adding to the world's intelligence rather than detracting from it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon

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