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First Thoughts: Sidetracked

Controversies sidetrack the White House, Congress, and the press… The danger for the White House: This could imperil Obama’s second-term legislative agenda… But there’s also a danger in over-analyzing the past seven days… Krauthammer’s warning to Republicans… Obama, Treasury respond to IG report on IRS… On that Ben Rhodes email… Mark Sanford’s first day back on Hill… And Planned Parenthood hits Cuccinelli.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney pauses while speaking to reporters in the briefing room of the White House May 14, 2013.

*** Sidetracked: The Benghazi/IRS/AP stories over the past week have had this additional impact for the Obama White House: They’ve sidetracked the other issues that President Obama has wanted to discuss. (Frankly, they’ve also sidetracked us in media, too.)  Last Thursday, Obama was in Austin, TX to talk about the economy; on Friday, he was selling implementation of his health-care law; on Monday night, the president traveled to fundraisers in New York, where expressed his desire to still work with Republicans (even as he raised money for Democrats for the ’14 midterms); and today at 11:00 am ET, he delivers remarks at a national peace officers memorial. Oh, there was another piece of news from yesterday the White House would have enjoyed to tout -- the budget deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office, is estimated to fall to its lowest level since 2008. But what are the stories still being discussed in Washington today? The IRS targeting conservative-sounding groups. The Justice Department getting the AP’s phone records in a national-security leak investigation. And the Obama administration revising those Benghazi talking points.

*** The danger for the White House: NBC’s Kasie Hunt also notes that the controversies have sidetracked Congress, too. For instance, a weeks-long markup of a major Senate immigration bill received little attention yesterday; Attorney General Eric Holder testifies at a 1:00 pm ET oversight hearing, which will likely focus on the department's seizure of AP phone records and other thorny issues. Moreover, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee (Orrin Hatch) wants the IRS investigation to take priority over dealing with tax reform. And get this: Fully a third of House committees are now focused on investigating the Obama administration. As NBC’s Mike O’Brien writes, all of this COULD imperil the Obama White House’s second-term legislative agenda. “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,” Jim Manley, a former senior Democratic Senate aide, told O’Brien. “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.”

*** A temporary distraction or a long-term one? So is this a temporary distraction or the beginning of the end of Obama’s second term? Remember the warning we issued months ago about second terms. Legislatively, in the best of times, they last about 18 months. The last four presidents to win second terms saw their ability to drive a legislative agenda get stopped in its tracks in 18 months or less. For Nixon, it was about six months before Washington gave up; Reagan got tax reform done and then Iran-Contra came; Clinton got a year until Monica broke in Jan. 98; and George W. Bush’s second term legislative push ended before Labor Day of that first year

*** Yet the danger in over-analyzing: Despite all the controversies facing the administration -- and how they have sidetracked its agenda -- there is a danger in over-analyzing what has occurred in the past week. After all, the White House has faced even more trying times over the past four and a half years (the U.S. economy in free-fall, the BP spill, the debt-ceiling debacle of 2011), and all of those stories now seem like distant memories. And while some are saying that Washington has turned on Obama, we have this question: When has Establishment Washington ever been a fan of how Team Obama has responded to crises and controversies? (The current issues, and the White House’s stubbornly passive way of handling them, are serving as an excuse for the president’s frenemies to pile on and re-air old grievances, like he’s terrible at personal outreach or he’s or why the person who promised to “turn the page” can’t change Washington.) Politico’s Jonathan Martin puts it well: Will all of these investigations and controversies result in a 2010 (when the public worried about the federal government’s excesses, albeit in a time of 9.0%-plus unemployment) or in a 1998 (when the GOP faced backlash for the Lewinsky investigation)? Right now, we don’t have an answer, but you can begin making a case that everything out there (talk of scandal and investigations, the Dow reaching new highs, the budget deficit declining) looks a whole lot like the 1990s.

*** Krauthammer’s warning to Republicans: Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer warns Republicans not to overplay their hand. “The one advice I give to Republicans is stop calling it a huge scandal. Stop saying it's a Watergate. Stop saying it's Iran Contra. Let the facts speak for themselves. Have a special committee, a select committee. The facts will speak for themselves. Pile them on but don't exaggerate, don't run ads about Hillary. It feed the narrative for the other side that it's only a political event. It's not. Just be quiet and present the facts.”

*** Obama, Treasury respond to IG report on IRS: On “TODAY” this morning, NBC’s Lisa Myers reported on inspector general’s report into the IRS, and the IG concluded that the agency was targeting conservative-sounding groups in their application for tax-exempt status, that the IRS unit responsible was a mess, and that some employees were actually ignorant about tax laws. But the IG also concluded that the targeting didn’t originate OUTSIDE the IRS. “We asked the Acting Commissioner, Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division; the Director, EO; and Determinations Unit personnel if the criteria were influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS. All of these officials stated that the criteria were not influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS,” the report said. President Obama released a statement after the report’s release: “[T]he report's findings are intolerable and inexcusable… I've directed Secretary Lew to hold those responsible for these failures accountable, and to make sure that each of the Inspector General's recommendations are implemented quickly, so that such conduct never happens again.” And Treasury Secretary Jack Lew responded with his own statement: “I strongly agree with the President about the need for accountability at the IRS, and I expect the IRS to implement the Inspector General's recommendations without delay.” That said, the IG report will do NOTHING to satisfy members of Congress who still have lots of questions.

*** On that Ben Rhodes email: Regarding those Benghazi talking points, First Read has now seen the email from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, and it appears to differ from the earlier portrayal that the Obama White House wanted the State Department’s concerns to be addressed. In fact, what Rhodes seemed to want is for all the information to be as accurate as possible. "There is a ton of wrong information getting out into the public domain from Congress and people who are not particularly informed. Insofar as we have firmed up assessments that don't compromise intel or the investigation, we need to have the capability to correct the record, as there are significant policy and messaging ramifications that would flow from a hardened mis-impression,” he said. But it’s important to note that this Rhodes email, via a government source, is a SELECTIVE leak -- just as the earlier portrayal of the email chain was a SELECTIVE leak. This only puts pressure on the White House to release ALL of these emails. You can’t start showing some of them without showing all of them.

*** Sanford’s first day back on Capitol Hill: In other news, “Rep.-elect Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) will be sworn in Wednesday as the new representative of South Carolina’s 1st district, his spokesman announced Tuesday,” the Washington Post writes. “In the House chamber, Sanford will be sworn in approximately 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, spokesman Joel Sawyer said. The Republican will rejoin Congress a week after he defeated Democratic nominee Elizabeth Colbert Busch by nine points, even as he was barraged by Democratic outside spending.”

*** Planned Parenthood hits Cuccinelli: In Virginia’s gubernatorial contest, Planned Parenthood Action Fund is launching a web advertisement hitting Ken Cuccinelli on social issues in advance of this weekend’s Virginia GOP convention in Richmond. “That Ken Cuccinelli -- he’s running for governor, and he keeps showing up where he doesn’t belong. He’s trying to put himself in the middle of our most personal decision,” the ad goes. He sponsored legislation to end funding for Planned Parenthood, and Ken Cuccinelli wants to make abortion illegal, even in cases of rape, incest, or when the health of the woman is in danger.” The web ad, which targets women voters, will run through this weekend.

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