Sun Dec 04 14:17:35 SAST 2016

THE BIG READ: Obama's woes not a ripple on Watergate

John Avlon | 2013-05-21 00:55:59.0
US President Barack Obama is facing a slew of scandals that could derail his legislative agenda
Image by: JASON REED/REUTERS

Somewhere, Richard Nixon is smiling. Four decades after Watergate and two decades after his death, we still can't stop talking about the dark anti-hero of American politics. His five o'clock shadow visage remains too convenient a metaphor for lazy critics looking to lacerate a president from the opposing party.

The latest non-Watergate to be labelled its second coming is a combination of three separate scandals afflicting the Barack Obama administration.

The collective weight of this scandalabra threatens to derail the president's ambitious legislative agenda, dragging him to premature lame-duck status.

But however fervently Obama's critics might wish it, the trio of affairs does not represent outright criminality, nor promise to prompt a constitutional crisis.

In fact, the ritualistic invocation has the opposite effect, making the scandals look smaller than they are by comparison with Nixon's.

The Internal Revenue Service scandal is the most serious and the most likely to bring back a genuine whiff of Tricky Dick. IRS workers were filtering applications for tax-exempt status by political organisations in the run-up to last year's election, casting an unacceptable and possibly illegal eye on whether they had phrases such as "Tea Party" or "patriot" in their names.

After the scandal broke last week, Obama denounced the actions as "outrageous" and fired the acting IRS director, along with a top deputy.

Congressional hearings will determine how widespread this practice was, but the initial investigation found no orders coming from outside the agency. New regulations are needed to ensure this cannot happen again, while also ensuring that the explosive growth of partisan groups pretending to be non-partisan non-profits is properly policed.

But it's a long way from Nixon ordering the IRS to audit individuals on his list of political enemies.

The second scandal came when the US Justice Department told the Associated Press that reporters' phone records had been secretly subpoenaed as part of an investigation into a leak over national security.

Suddenly, privacy issues became personal to the press corps, and they reacted with understandable outrage in a series of brutal press conferences.

Again, Republicans invoked Nixon against Obama. But, ironically, it was they who had first called for an investigation.

On the surface, this new version of the old struggle between freedom and security might recall Nixon-era fights over the Pentagon Papers. But the ugliness of this particular inquiry is really a reminder of how far technology has outpaced law, putting privacy under assault for individuals and the press.

Government officials have said the AP phone records were just one element in an ongoing, sweeping US government investigation into media leaks about a Yemen-based plot to bomb a US airliner, prompted by a May 7 2012 AP story about the operation to foil the plot.

"We don't question their right to conduct these sort of investigations," the wire service's chief executive and president Gary Pruitt said on Sunday.

"We think they went about it the wrong way, so sweeping, so secretively, so abusively and harassingly."

The US administration took up the passage of a media shield law as part of its public penance.

Obama has asked for the reintroduction of legislation to protect the press from subpoenas.

Had it been law, the Washington Post reported last week, the Department of Justice may well have got hold of the AP records anyway. But the process would have played out differently.

We'll see whether the outrage over this unethical but unfortunately legal investigation translates into votes in Congress.

Finally, there is the inquiry into the killing of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya. There has been a resurgence in recent weeks of questions surrounding the deaths of US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in an attack on a US facility in Benghazi last year.

The White House released a barrage of e-mails that cast cold water on conservative conspiracy theorists. But Karl Rove's group, American Crossroads, has launched online advertisements about Benghazi that seem to be aimed more at stopping a 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign than at expressing genuine moral outrage.

The breaches of public trust not only threaten the bipartisan votes necessary to pass key legislation, but they also undercut the president's ability to make his larger legacy case that progressive governance can be efficient and effective.

Reflexive partisan projections distort and discredit the search for truth. That is only compounded by the impulse to impose old narratives about "Nixon" and "Watergate" on current events. These scandals can stand on their own. - ©The Sunday Telegraph

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