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Washington Matters

Benghazi, IRS Cloud Obama's Agenda

Administration stumbles give Republicans new grounds to fight back in the second term.

Barack Obama's place in history was cemented the moment he finished the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009. Somewhere in the first line of every obituary, no matter how many years from now it's written, he'll be called the country's first black president.

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Whatever else will be said about him by obituary writers and, further down the road, historians, is still playing out in his second term. Health care will play a role, for sure, along with the killing of Osama bin Laden.

But the chance of Obama using his second term to build on his legacy is, suddenly, in doubt.

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It wasn't supposed to be this way, of course. After romping to victory over his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, last fall, Obama was expected to have an easier time working with a divided Congress. Chastened Republicans talked openly about the need to cooperate with the president to try to get important work done.

But then, administration officials did a remarkable thing: In a stunning series of circular firing squad moments, they gave Republicans a handful of new reasons to criticize and investigate the administration and to reconnect with the American people.

It started with this month's hearings into the administration's handling of the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. There are serious questions that need to be addressed and changes in procedure that should be made to lessen the chances of U.S. diplomats and their private guards dying in future attacks. There's also room for an airing of the CIA's role, as much as anything involving the CIA can be aired. But all that is taking a backseat to the politics of what then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knew and when she knew it, accompanied by various conspiracy theories based on the fact that she wasn't questioned during an internal investigation.

There are a lot of things a president can say in such a case. Perhaps the smartest would be, "We're focused on the brave men who died serving their country and we're trying to prevent something like this from happening again."

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Instead, he said this: "We don't have time to be playing these kinds of political games here in Washington."

Unfortunately for him, his words came as the IRS -- the one government agency nearly everyone loves to hate -- got caught playing political games of a different kind. Obama was forced to blast the IRS for its decision to single out tea party groups to determine whether they were improperly seeking tax-exempt status.

An important question cries out to be answered: Should organizations that exist primarily to influence elections or espouse a particular point of view get to raise and spend millions of dollars outside the tax system?

But overzealous agents, and perhaps some folks higher up the ladder, short-circuited any attempt to have a serious discussion by focusing on small-fry political opponents rather than making an even-handed inquiry.

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Heads will probably roll over this one. Even if they don't, the administration will be on the defensive through yet another series of Republican-led congressional hearings.

The latest blow came May 13, with word that the Justice Department had obtained home and office phone records of reporters and editors who work for the Associated Press. The usual practice, issuing a subpoena and giving a news organization a chance to go to court, was ignored, opening the administration to claims that its action was tantamount to thumbing its nose at the First Amendment.

You might think journalists wouldn't have many friends on this one. Think again. GOP leaders on the Hill lined up to condemn the department for overreaching and trampling on the Constitution.

Individually, these occurrences would probably live in the headlines for a while and in the heads of Obama bashers a while longer. But news of all three, coming in rapid suggestion, suggest a pattern. And it's not a pretty one, no matter what you think of this president or which brand of politics you favor.

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The impression is of an arrogant administration that knows the president never again needs to face voters -- doing anything it wants, whenever it wants, regardless of the consequences. Accurate or not, the impression will linger for some time.

The wheels aren't necessarily falling off the metaphorical presidential bus, but a couple of tires are flat, complicating the rest of Obama's journey as commander in chief.