| 15.8°C Dublin

Obama may be embroiled in scandals but he's definitely no Tricky Dicky

Close

CAPTION: President Barack Obama arrives at the graduation ceremony of the class of 2013 at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. With Mr Obama is the college's president John Wilson.

CAPTION: President Barack Obama arrives at the graduation ceremony of the class of 2013 at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. With Mr Obama is the college's president John Wilson.

Reuters

CAPTION: President Barack Obama arrives at the graduation ceremony of the class of 2013 at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. With Mr Obama is the college's president John Wilson.

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 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 IRS 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, President 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 explosive growth of partisan groups pretending to be non-partisan non-profits is properly policed. But it's a long way from Nixon (like LBJ before him) ordering the IRS to audit individuals on his political enemies list.

The second scandal came when the 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.

The administration again took up the passage of a media shield law as part of its public penance. 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. The White House released a barrage of emails 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 political events. These scandals can stand on their own. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent