Washington — President Barack Obama is trying to halt a perception spreading among both White House opponents and allies that he has been passive and disengaged as a trio of unexpected controversies consume his second term.
On Wednesday Obama released a trove of documents related to the Benghazi attack and forced out the top official at the federal tax collection agency following revelations that it targeted conservative political groups.
In another action, the White House asked Congress to revive a media shield law that would protect journalists from having to reveal information, a step seen as a response to the Justice Department's widely criticised subpoenas of phone records from reporters and editors at The Associated Press.
The flurry of activity signalled a White House anxious to regain control amid the trio of deepening controversies. The incidents have emboldened Republicans, overshadowed Obama's legislative agenda and threatened to plunge his second term into a steady stream of congressional investigations.
Standing in the East Room of the White House, the president said Acting Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Steven Miller had resigned and vowed that more steps would be taken to hold those responsible accountable.
"Americans have a right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it," Obama said of the IRS actions. "I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour at any agency, but especially at the IRS given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives."
Open to quick criticism
The president had addressed the IRS controversy on Monday, but his measured words left many unsatisfied, particularly given that he had waited three days to address the developments. He also repeatedly asserted that he was waiting to find out if the reports were accurate, even though top officials had already acknowledged the controversial actions.
Adding to narrative of a passive president were White House efforts to distance Obama from the IRS scandal, as well as the revelations that the Justice Department had secretly obtained work and personal phone records of journalists. In both cases, the White House insisted the president had no prior knowledge of the events and learned about the matters like the general public — from news reports.
Obama's cautious response, combined with his lack of awareness about controversies brewing within his administration, opened him to quick criticism from his Republican foes.
"If Obama really learned about the latest IRS and AP secret subpoena scandals in the news, who exactly is running the ship at the White House?" Republican National Committee spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski said.
But in a worrying sign for the White House, some Democrats also criticised the president for not being more aggressive in responding to trouble within the government.
Robert Gibbs, Obama's former White House press secretary, said the president should have appointed a bipartisan commission of former IRS officials to look into the issue of targeting political organizations. And Gibbs gently chided his former boss for using passive language when he first addressed the political targeting during a White House news conference on Monday.
E-mails made public
"The language should be more active than phrases like 'I didn't have any patience for this' or 'If the allegations are true'," Gibbs said during an appearance on MSNBC.
The pair of new fresh controversies coincided with a resurgence in the Republican-led investigation into the 11 September 2012, attacks on a US compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans.
Congressional Republicans launched another round of hearings on the attacks last week. And on Friday, a congressional official disclosed details of e-mails among administration officials that resulted in the CIA downplaying the prospect that the attacks were an act of terror in talking points used to publicly discuss the deadly incident.
Obama aides insisted the e-mails were either taken out of context or provided no new information but resisted pressure to make the e-mails public for five days, before finally disclosing the documents to reporters on Wednesday. The e-mails revealed that then-CIA Director David Petraeus disagreed with the final talking points, despite the White House's insistence that the intelligence agency had the final say over the statements.
The White House has publicly defended its handling of the controversies. Obama spokesperson Jay Carney has insisted it would be "wholly inappropriate" for the president, in the case of the Justice Department matter, to weigh in on an active investigation, and in the case of the IRS controversy, to insert himself in the actions of an independent agency.