Six months after his triumphant re-election, “secondterm-itis” has struck President Obama, beset by simultaneous scandals that could scotch his already slender hopes of driving major new legislation through Congress.
The turnaround is all the more startling in that previously the Obama White House had been almost eerily scandal-free, the only blemish being a failed solar energy company named Solyndra. But Republicans failed to show that $400m of taxpayers’ money poured into Solyndra was anything worse than a high-tech bet gone sour.
However, the administration is suddenly on the defensive on three fronts: its handling of the aftermath of the Benghazi attack last September, the targeting by US tax authorities of conservative political groups, and now the secret seizure by the Justice Department of phone records for reporters at the Associated Press, in its pursuit of a leak of information about a failed al-Qa’ida plot last year.
None comes close to Watergate, which destroyed Richard Nixon, or the Iran-Contra affair that engulfed Ronald Reagan. Nor do they yet give Mr Obama the lameduck status to which, sooner or later, every second term incumbent is consigned.
But they do underline an eternal truth. From Franklin Roosevelt and his attempt to pack the Supreme Court, Nixon and Watergate, Reagan and Iran Contra, to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and most recently George W Bush and Hurricane Katrina, chaos in Iraq and the 2007/2008 financial crisis – second terms are when trouble hits.
Of the three, the Benghazi affair seems the least menacing. Whether the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three members of his staff in the 11 September 2012 terrorist attack could have been prevented is no longer the issue. What bothers the Republicans is “spin”: how the administration portrayed the attack. And their quarry is at least as much the then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom Republicans see as their most formidable potential opponent in 2016, as Mr Obama himself.
The AP and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) controversies may be more damaging. In the former, the Justice Department is pursuing not so much the wire service as the official who leaked details of the operation in 2012 to thwart an “underwear bombing” of a commercial plane planned by the Yemeni branch of al-Qa’ida.
Democratic administrations might be assumed to be more relaxed about leaks than Republican ones. Not so however Mr Obama’s, which has prosecuted six officials for leaking classified information to reporters.
The scope of the investigation, according to legal experts, is exceptional. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Gary Pruitt, the AP president, denounced a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into news-gathering activities that had “no possible justification”, and demanded the return of the records.
The IRS affair however may have the greatest ramifications, and certainly strikes the darkest historical chords. With its examination of the tax-exempt status of Tea Party-aligned and other right-wing political groups, the IRS has brought back memories of the Nixon White House and its use of the tax authorities to hound political opponents – except that this time the roles are reversed, with conservatives the target.
In Monday’s press conference with David Cameron, Mr Obama described the IRS’ behaviour (which the latter admits itself was “inappropriate”) as “outrageous”. There was no place for it, “and they have to be held fully accountable,” he said.
No one is claiming the President ordered the investigation – indeed, since Watergate, presidents have been legally barred from contact with the IRS. But the very question acted as illustration of how scandals, at the very least, are distractions for even the most disciplined White House.
Mr Obama is already learning that lesson. Last week’s Benghazi hearings dominated the Washington headlines. Hearings on the IRS affair are already scheduled for Friday in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and Mr Holder may well soon find himself in the Capitol Hill hot seat to explain the AP affair.