"The Presidency" column appears in U.S. News Weekly.
The nightmare scenario that President Barack Obama and his advisers had feared is now coming to pass – a growing number of congressional investigations that are causing enormous frustration and embarrassment for the White House, contributing to a serious credibility gap, and possibly damaging Obama's ability to govern. Some are pointing to the historical phenomenon of the "second-term curse."
Since Republicans control the House of Representatives, they have a powerful platform from which to scrutinize the administration, use subpoena power and generate publicity to keep Obama and his team on the hot seat. The current drumbeat of accusations is forcing White House officials to respond. And this takes their focus off the major initiatives of Obama's second term, such as arranging a budget deal, winning congressional approval for immigration reform and passing gun control measures.
Republicans are pushing harder than ever to investigate two explosive issues that could do lasting damage to the White House – the attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, last September 11, and the targeting by the Internal Revenue Service of conservative groups in the runup to the 2012 election. Obama says the Benghazi furor is a partisan "side show." But after days of dithering, he issued a statement last week condemning the IRS actions. Obama said he had read a Treasury Department report on the issue and concluded that the IRS's behavior was "intolerable and inexcusable." He directed Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to "hold those responsible for these failures accountable" and to make sure that "such conduct never happens again."
But the Republicans aren't satisfied with Obama's response to both the IRS mess and Benghazi. One of the leading critics of the Benghazi incident is California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He said the American people were "effectively lied to for a period of about a month" and that the public deserves "more facts." Issa told NBC's "Meet the Press": Former Secretary of State "Hillary Clinton's not a target. President Obama's not a target. The target is, how did we fail three different ways? Fail to heed the warnings of an impending attack, fail to respond properly during the attack – at least we should have done better, and I think everyone knows that – and then fail to get the truth to the American people in a timely fashion."
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who has also been harshly critical of the administration's handling of the Benghazi attack, said there has been a "cover-up." And former Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the conservative movement's leading hawks, faulted the Obama administration for major security lapses and bad judgments in Benghazi. Cheney told Fox News the Benghazi attack amounted to "one of the worst incidents that, frankly, I can recall in my career." He said administration officials "lied" about what happened, partly to bolster Democrats' arguments that the killing of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden had markedly reduced the terrorist threat.
Some see the current wave of accusations as another example of what historians call the "second-term curse," in which re-elected presidents tend to run into serious trouble because of overreaching, hubris or major misjudgments. Richard Nixon was forced to resign in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan was damaged by the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986. Bill Clinton was impeached because of the Monica Lewinsky sex-and-lies scandal in 1998. George W. Bush was hurt by mismanagement of the Iraq War early in his second term and by his administration's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
But White House officials don't see the current turmoil as part of a historic pattern.
"Partisan investigations by the Republicans have been a part of daily life around here since the Republicans took over the House in 2011," senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer told the Washington Post. "Every time they jump up and down and scream, "Watergate!" they end up with egg on their faces. I don't see this as a second-term phenomenon. It's just life with the GOP in charge."
The congressional investigation syndrome is one reason why Obama and the Democrats are eager to take control of the House from hostile Republicans in the 2014 midterm elections. Such a changeover would reduce the harsh scrutiny of the administration by Congress, for which Obama and his staff would be eternally grateful.