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Recent controversies threaten to bog down Obama's second-term agenda


A series of recent controversies have forced the Obama administration onto the defensive, emboldening Republicans in Congress and threatening to stymie the president’s already-struggling second-term agenda.

Republicans have already slowed or stopped several of President Barack Obama’s top priorities, including his gun-control proposal, tax plan and a slew of nominations. And this trio of new flaps threatens to further embolden conservatives in Congress, who have at times suffered struggled to unite due to infighting.

NBC's Andrea Mitchell talks to a political panel about how Congress should respond to the IRS and AP investigations.

Revelations that the Justice Department seized phone records from journalists at The Associated Press as part of an investigation into classified leaks has only added to headaches for the White House. Fresh questions about the administration’s handling of last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi and reports that the IRS had singled out conservative groups for scrutiny have further galvanized Republican critics to dig in against the president.

“The fact of the matter is House and Senate Republicans have done very little legislating so far this year. This certainly isn't going to help things,” said Jim Manley, a former senior Democratic Senate aide. “Now they're going to feast on investigation after investigation for the rest of the year, while throwing red meat to their base and forgetting about the divisions in their own caucus.”

Indeed, Republicans have quickly rallied around this trio of controversies – particularly the IRS story, and the continued probe into Benghazi.

“If I were in the opposing party, and the White House were having this kind of week, I’d be smiling,” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist.

Republicans have thwarted many elements of the president’s second-term agenda over the past few months, showing little or no interest in the kind of compromise Obama hoped might come from his and Democrats’ decisive electoral victories last fall.

"My thinking was when we beat them in 2012 that might break the fever, and it’s not quite broken yet," Obama said Monday at a fundraiser, alluding to that phenomenon. "But I am persistent. And I am staying at it."

But the continued probe into Benghazi and the IRS controversy seems to have renewed Republicans’ focus, making the opposition party as energized and focused as ever in pursuing these issues to their bitter end, so as to hasten the onset of Obama’s “lame duck” status.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President Barack Obama walks off stage after speaking at a Democratic fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, Monday, May 13, 2013.

But not all of the administration’s allies are panicking.

“I just think that it’s panicking too quickly. Come back in a month and if nothing has changed, then that’s going to be a very bad sign,” said Michael Podhorzer, political director for the AFL-CIO. “It’s been a tough week for the administration, but things go up and down. We’ll just have to see how things go.”

In fact, one of the administration’s biggest priorities – comprehensive immigration reform – continues to steadily make its way through Congress, with the aid of Republicans. That legislation alone would be as much of a signature second-term achievement for the president as anything else on his agenda.

At Tuesday’s White House press briefing, press secretary Jay Carney disputed a reporter’s question about whether recent controversies threatened to knock Obama’s agenda off-course.

“The president is focused on what he believes the American people expect from him and their elected leaders in Washington,” he said.

And Democrats have begun to punch back.

“It wasn't long ago that the IRS inappropriately targeted the NAACP, Greenpeace and a California church that was really progressive,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Tuesday. “It was interesting at that time, we didn't hear a single Republican grandstand the issue then. Where was their outrage when groups on the other side of the political spectrum were under attack?”

Simmons counseled the administration to focus on notching small victories on other issues in order to turn the political tide back toward Obama – including by fully going after IRS wrongdoing once the facts in that case are clear.

“There are always announcements to make from government initiatives, people to invite from the White House, executive orders to issue,” he said. “The power of the presidency is the ability to move things forward.”

And progressive supporters of the administration are also on the lookout for any indication that Republicans, in their zeal to ding the administration in any of these recent controversies, overreach in their efforts.

"If the last six years have taught us not much, it’s that Republicans are willing to drive over the cliff, and in a way that’s unprecedented,”  Podhorzer said. “I’m not saying anything Earth-shattering to say that Republicans are in their partisan bunker, and they’re looking for any reason to go after the administration. This is a party that was pushing birther arguments six months ago.”

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