Scandals risk tainting Obama's second term

WASHINGTON (AFP) - With time ticking down to get things done in his final term, President Barack Obama risks suffering long-term consequences from a series of scandals that have hit the White House in recent days.

After wavering initially, the US leader launched an all-out offensive to contain fallout from the trio of controversies.

Senior Obama advisor Dan Pfeiffer, doing the rounds of weekly television talk shows on Sunday, went into damage control mode on the scandals, including one related to alleged abuses by the tax-collecting Internal Revenue Service as it targeted conservative groups.

"The activity was outrageous and inexcusable, and it was stopped and it needs to be fixed so we ensure it never happens again," Mr Pfeiffer told ABC's This Week programme.

In an appearance on CNN's State Of The Union, Mr Pfeiffer addressed the administration's agenda going forward, in an apparent attempt to shift the spotlight to whether Republicans will help move ahead on vitally important issues such as economic growth and immigration reform.

"I think we're going to continue pushing forward with the president's agenda to help middle class families grow the economy," Mr Pfeiffer said.

"And the question, I think, given events last week is, are Republicans going to continue to work with the president, look for opportunities for bipartisan preparation, or are they going to use this as a reason to not act at all?"

Republicans have been fiercely critical of the White House, saying the scandals are illustrative of an administration guilty of a massive abuse of power.

"There is a culture of intimidation throughout the administration. The IRS is just the most recent example," top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell said on NBC's Meet the Press.

"We're talking about an attitude the government knows best, the nanny state is here to tell us what to do and if you start criticising, you get targeted," Mr McConnell added.

The scandals have dogged the administration for days.

Countering Republican lawmakers' claims of a cover-up over the deadly Sept 11 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, the White House released 100 pages of internal emails on Wednesday.

And amid a firestorm over the government's secret seizure of phone logs from reporters at the Associated Press, the White House backed legislation to strengthen journalists' rights to protect sources.

Still, Mr Obama appears to have weathered the storm relatively unscathed - at least for now - with a new poll showing his ratings holding steady.

The CNN/ORC International survey found that 53 percent of Americans say they approve how Mr Obama is doing his job, compared to 45 per cent who disapprove.

Experts insist, however, that there could be serious fallout for the president, especially over the tax agency scandal, which led to the forced resignation of acting IRS chief Steven Miller.

"The most significant one that will be the long-term problem for the administration is the IRS scandal," said Kareem Crayton, associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina.

Mr Miller told Congress on Friday that the tax agency had made "foolish mistakes," but had not been motivated by any political agenda.

Mr Obama, by saying he had no prior knowledge about the special scrutiny of groups linked to the Tea Party movement and learned about it only through the media, "unhelpfully solidifies an impression of the president and the administration that it's not paying attention," Mr Crayton said.

Whatever happens next, "the enduring victim here... is the sense that the president is doing the business of the people and is confident and up to the charge," he added.

The controversies come at a delicate time for Mr Obama, with the rapid approach of campaign season ahead of the 2014 mid-term elections giving him just a few months to push ahead with key agenda items like immigration reform and climate change.

Mr Crayton said the scandals may have hampered this effort.

"There's an opportunity cost because all of this back and forth" over the controversies deflects attention from "any of the substantive issues that the Obama administration has talked about pushing in its second term."

Mr Obama, in a rousing commencement speech at the historically black and all-male Morehouse College in the southern city of Atlanta, Georgia steered clear of the scandals, touting his second term agenda instead as he tried to turn the page on the past week.

"My job, as president, is to advocate for policies that generate more opportunity for everybody - policies that strengthen the middle class and give more people the chance to climb their way into the middle class," he told graduating students.

On Friday, Mr Obama briefly alluded to the controversies, vowing not to get "distracted" by them.

"Others may get distracted by chasing every fleeting issue that passes by, but the middle class will always be my number one focus, period," he said.

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