President Obama on Thursday ratcheted up efforts to put behind him a trio of scandals bogging down his administration, appointing a new head for the beleaguered Internal Revenue Service while not apologizing for his Justice Department's secret monitoring of reporters' phones.
Obama condemned the IRS' admitted targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, forcing out its leader. But he is taking a very different tack on government monitoring of journalists, defending investigations of press leaks as a matter of national security.
"Clearly, the White House is most vulnerable on the IRS issue," said a Democratic strategist with close ties to Obama. "The IRS is the most detested of all government agencies, and it's something that outraged people of all political stripes. It's not as easy for Republicans to attack the [Justice Department], considering their own stances on national security issues. And the president views the focus on Benghazi talking points as a sideshow."
Obama, making a rain-soaked Rose Garden appearance, expressed "complete confidence" in embattled Attorney General Eric Holder and defended government crackdowns on leaks of sensitive information.
"I make no apologies, and I don't think the American people would expect me as commander in chief not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed," Obama said.
Republicans said Obama's backing of the attorney general is just further proof the president will not accept personal responsibility for a trio of controversies, including the IRS targeting conservative groups, the Justice Department spying on journalists and his administration crafting misleading talking points about the deadly terrorist attack in Benghazi.
"Nothing dissolves the bonds between the people and their government like the arrogance of power here in Washington," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "That's what the American people are seeing today from the Obama administration: remarkable arrogance."
Following his press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Obama appointed Daniel Werfel, a senior Office of Management and Budget official, as the next acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, replacing Steven Miller, who the president ousted a day earlier. That was followed by the announced retirement of Joseph Grant, who oversees the IRS division that handles tax-exempt organizations.
Obama rejected calls for a special counsel to investigate the IRS, leaving it to Holder and the Justice Department. When pressed on whether any White House officials knew about the IRS targeting, the president demurred, saying he was unaware of the episode until news agencies highlighted the wrongdoing.
Despite Obama's heightened efforts, the swirl of controversy is unlikely to fade anytime soon.
With the IRS probing tax records of political opposition groups and the Justice Department monitoring journalists' phones, Obama and his administration have been accused of using tactics unseen since former President Nixon and Watergate.
"I'll let you guys engage in those comparisons," Obama told reporters Thursday. "You can go ahead and read the history and draw your own conclusions."