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First Thoughts: Trying to stop the bleeding

NBC's Domenico Montanaro notes that President Obama and the White House are trying to stop the bleeding from three controversies this week. Can they pull it off? It depends, especially when it comes to the IRS.

Obama White House moves to stop the bleeding… Success on whether the controversies stay a one-week story rather than a months-long one depends on the follow-through, especially regarding the IRS controversy… But it also depends on whether the GOP overplays it hand… Classic Obama: White House takes days to find the right response… Don’t lose sight on Syria… House votes to repeal Obamacare… Sanford’s first day back… And new Quinnipiac poll: McAuliffe up slightly in Virginia.

*** Trying to stop the bleeding: After his most difficult stretch of days since winning re-election, President Obama on Wednesday tried to stop the bleeding with two different moves just more than an hour apart -- all in an effort to keep a bad week from turning into a bad month and perhaps ending any chances of a serious legislative agenda. First, at 5:00 pm ET, his White House released 100 pages of emails and documents related to the crafting of the talking points to describe the Sept. 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi. The emails revealed more agency politics (between CIA and the State Department) than electoral politics (as Republicans had accused). Second, a little after 6:00 pm ET, Obama delivered a statement announcing that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew had accepted the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner in the wake of the controversy that the tax agency had targeted conservative-sounding groups for additional scrutiny in their application for tax-exempt status. The president also announced that new safeguards would be put in place to prevent it from happening again, and he pledged to work with Congress to get it fixed. And today at noon ET, he holds a news conference -- with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan -- where he’ll likely answer reporters’ questions about both actions. There was also an effort to stop the bleeding on a third front: The White House said it supports the re-introduction of a media-shield bill after the Justice Department’s seizure of AP phone records. (Of course, it’s the somewhat watered down version of the shield law that had originally passed the House in 2009 and died in the Senate when Dems had 60 votes.)  

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Barack Obama delivers a statement from the East Room of the White House, May 15, 2013.

*** Success depends on the follow-through… : So will yesterday’s actions keep a bad week from turning into a bad month? The answer: It depends on the follow-through, especially as it relates to the IRS issue, which has always been the most problematic controversy for the White House because it’s the easiest one for the public to understand. The immediate challenge for the White House -- besides disciplining IRS employees who engaged in this targeting -- is to find a tough-guy replacement whom the public knows and trusts (a retired Republican, CEO, top cop, you get the idea) to take over the agency’s reins. Make no mistake, this IRS issue has united a Republican Party that had been fraying on topics like immigration, the budget and to a lesser extent guns. So the real test for the White House is to stick to the follow-through and not allow the Republican Party to own it. The more bipartisan the outrage is at the IRS (and assuming there is no connection to the administration in some meaningful way), the more the White House believes it can insulate itself politically on the issue. But if credibility cannot be restored at the IRS, it really does hamper the administration’s ability to implement health care and it certainly doesn’t help get Republicans on board with immigration reform. It’ll be QUITE easy for a Republican to argue: Obama can’t run the IRS, what makes you think he can run health care or secure the border? 

*** … And also whether the GOP overplays its hand: But there’s also a danger for Republicans: Do they overplay their hand when it comes to the IRS? Already, the Benghazi talking-point emails don’t reveal the political conspiracy that many Republicans and conservatives had openly theorized, and they also reveal that Susan Rice -- whose reputation was dragged through the mud -- was a relatively innocent victim (though no one likes to be exposed as someone who was simply following a set of talking points about which they had little input). What’s more, the Benghazi emails have all come down to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland’s concerns. Were they simply about trying not to hinder the investigation into the Islamic extremists in the attack (as Democrats say)? Or were they about trying to clean the State Department’s hands (as Republicans allege)? By the way, as for how government works, this email release reveals something that many in Washington have known for years but the public is less familiar with: These emails show how deputies are often the ones making key governmental decisions, with the principals later signing off.

*** Taking days to find that right response: All that said, yesterday’s moves were typical of Team Obama -- it often takes them days to find a suitable response to a controversy. Think Jeremiah Wright (which it finally solved with a famous speech), the bitter/cling remarks (which it first embraced and them condemned), and the BP spill (which took several tries to strike the right tone). Obama supporters argue that taking time to find the right response is more of a virtue than a vice, especially when dealing with complex issues. Additionally, they might say this criticism is more of a reflection on a 24-7 media culture than demands immediate answers and explanations. But there’s also no doubt that the White House would prefer finding a suitable response on Day 1 than Day 4 or 5. And, as we said above, we’re not sure the Obama White House has still found that sweet-spot response on these controversies; a lot is riding on its replacement pick to head the IRS.   

*** Don’t lose sight on Syria: While today’s news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan will likely be dominated by questions regarding the domestic controversies over the last several days, don’t lose sight how important Erdogan’s visit is regarding Syria. The situation there has become a HUGE problem for Turkey, which is the United States’ most important ally in the Middle East besides Israel. And Turkey wants the U.S. to take a greater role in resolving the civil war in Syria. 

*** House votes to repeal Obamacare: Also today, around 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm ET per NBC’s Luke Russert, the House will hold its 38th vote -- per NBC’s count -- to repeal part or all of the federal health-care law. House Republicans are quick to point out that today’s vote is only the third time Republicans have voted to FULLY repeal the law; the other efforts were regarding parts of the law. As the New York Times wrote earlier this week, “Three dozen is a lot for a bill that currently has no prayer of becoming law. But the figure …  actually understates the amount of time Republicans have devoted to litigating and trying to dismantle the president’s biggest legislative accomplishment. The repeal vote, which is likely to occur Thursday, will be at least the 43rd day since Republicans took over the House that they have devoted time to voting on the issue. To put that in perspective, they have held votes on only 281 days since taking power in January 2011. (The House and Senate have pretty light legislative loads these days, typically voting only three or four days a week.) That means that since 2011, Republicans have spent no less than 15 percent of their time on the House floor on repeal in some way.”

*** Are we witnessing Holder’s last hurrah? Before 5:00 pm yesterday, the biggest story in Washington was Eric Holder’s combative hearing with House Republicans. Few punches were pulled, and personal frustrations surfaced rather easily. There is clearly no love lost between Holder and Darrell Issa, for instance. While the hearing was all over the map, Holder struggled to explain when he recused himself in the national security leak investigation. While he explained WHY he recused himself, the fact he had nothing in writing or could not say when was something that just seemed odd for America’s top law enforcement official to admit. How does he not have the recusal in writing? Don’t lawyers put everything in writing?

*** Sanford’s first day back: Don’t miss Jessica Taylor’s dispatch of Mark Sanford first day back on Capitol Hill. “As Sanford took his official oath late Wednesday afternoon, he echoed the same themes of redemption he used in his winning campaign. ‘I stand before you with a whole new appreciation for the God of second chances,’ Sanford said. The Republican’s return nearly 13 years after he left Capitol Hill is all the more remarkable for his having overcome the scandal that derailed his governorship.” 

*** New poll: McAuliffe up slightly in Virginia: And in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, a new Quinnipiac poll shows Terry McAuliffe (D) with a slight lead over Ken Cuccinelli (R) among registered voters, 43%-38%. That pretty much mirrors our NBC/Marist poll from last week, which had it McAuliffe 43%, Cuccinelli 41% with registered voters -- although among likely voters, the numbers were reversed: Cuccinelli 45%, McAuliffe 42%. 

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