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Analysis: As scandals mount, White House springs into damage control

President Barack Obama takes the stage to deliver a statement in the East Room of the White House in Washington, May 15, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin
President Barack Obama takes the stage to deliver a statement in the East Room of the White House in Washington, May 15, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With no sign of an end to three mushrooming scandals, the White House acknowledged the rising political dangers on Wednesday by launching a concerted effort at damage control.

In a whirlwind few hours, the administration moved forcefully to counter criticism of its handling of the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya, the seizure of reporters' phone records in a Justice Department leak investigation, and the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny.

In the most aggressive response, President Barack Obama ousted the acting IRS commissioner on Wednesday evening.

It was the sort of concerted response that Obama's political allies had been waiting for, but Republicans' skeptical reaction shows that Obama has a long way to go to dig his way out of the scandals and build goodwill as he tries to salvage his second-term legislative agenda.

"This was a belated acknowledgment that Obama is in trouble," said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. "The question is whether it was too little, too late."

After a largely scandal-free first term, the administration had been slow to respond decisively to the growing criticism - mostly from Republican foes but in some cases from Democrats - in the three controversies.

Days of deflecting blame by administration officials had sparked criticism of Obama's willingness to accept responsibility. During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday afternoon with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Republicans repeatedly attacked the administration for not being forthright on the emerging scandals.

"I believe there has been a pattern by this administration in not taking responsibility for failures, avoiding blame, pointing the fingers in somebody else's direction," said U.S. Representative Steve Chabot, a Republican from Ohio.

But Obama, known for his deliberative style and an aversion to overreacting, decided on Wednesday it was time to fight back.

Appearing at the White House, he said the administration had forced the resignation of acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller and he strongly condemned the agency's apparent targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny. He promised to cooperate with Congress in an investigation.

Obama's appearance came shortly after the White House released a series of emails detailing discussions about the now famous "talking points" memos that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice used when discussing the September 11, 2012, attacks that killed four Americans in Benghazi.

'POLITICAL DAMAGE CONTROL'

Those emails had been the focus of Republican criticism that the Obama administration had not been forthright about the nature of the attack on a diplomatic compound by Islamic militants.

Hoping to defuse criticism about the secret seizure of phone records from Associated Press journalists, the administration sought to revive a 2009 media shield bill sponsored by Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York.

The bill would give federal protection to reporters who decline to reveal their confidential sources, but would also allow national security needs to outweigh those journalists' rights.

Nobody expected the White House response to put an end to the controversies, but it showed the administration was finally willing to openly confront the potential political fallout.

"They clearly have realized it's time to mount political damage control," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas.

"You can't just stay quiet and take it, although it does fit Obama's personal style of not foaming at the mouth every time something goes wrong, which is actually something people seem to like about him," he said.

Pitney said the Obama administration appeared to be caught off-guard by the scandals, which have not taken the classic form of a public official caught with his hand in the fiscal till.

"They perhaps didn't anticipate that scandal can take many forms," he said. "They obviously did not see this coming and they weren't prepared for this kind of controversy."

Republicans plan to press congressional investigations of all three incidents in a growing political assault that could still overwhelm Obama's effort to work with his political rivals on immigration reform and looming budget negotiations.

With congressional elections approaching in 2014, any longstanding political damage also could hurt Democrats' efforts to maintain control of the Senate and retake the majority in the House.

But without additional evidence of wrongdoing that traces directly to the White House, Buchanan said, the three scandals may not resonate widely with voters over the long term.

"I don't think they are in trouble except in D.C.," he said. "There might be something there but in the absence of a smoking gun it will blow over."

(Editing by Karey Van Hall)

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