Does Obama Administration Have The Second Term Curse?

The second term curse has plagued the last five two-term presidents, but President Obama's administration had been confident they'd be the ones to break the streak. But instead the administration finds itself on the defensive about the Benghazi and now IRS questions targeted at Tea Party groups.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As we just heard, it's been a rocky few weeks for the Obama administration. And joining us now for some analysis of the politics of the moment is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hey there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So what's going on here? Is the White House, you know, in the grip of that second term curse?

LIASSON: Well, second terms are full of perils and pitfalls, but it's also true that the presidency has a lot of latent power. So I wouldn't be too quick to say that he's descended into lame duck status just yet. Still, there's no doubt the White House is frustrated. The president is frustrated. They're surprised at how fast partisan gridlock over everything has returned to the Capitol after his re-election.

That being said, the administration did make unforced errors. The IRS scandal appears to be a ham-handed attempt to come up with some kind of screening method to determine whether all of these new groups applying for tax-exempt status, in the wake of Citizens United, were truly social-welfare organizations or whether they were involved in political activities.

But the use of key words like patriots and Tea Party aren't neutral, and there also have been conflicting reports of when senior IRS officials knew about this effort.

CORNISH: Now, let's talk a little bit more about that. I mean, we heard President Obama address it a couple of minutes ago, but what kind of damage can this do his office?

LIASSON: Well, it can do real damage, and I think that's why he responded so vigorously today. You heard him call it outrageous. There are going to be continued hearings on this. Dave Camp, in the House, will hold hearings and in the Senate, the Finance Committee chair - Max Baucus, who's a Democrat - will also hold hearings. And don't forget, a continued focus on abuses by the IRS, which is one of the most hated parts of the government by the grassroots base of the Republican Party, in particular, is a great - is a benefit, politically, for Republicans.

And the president's comments today suggest that when he does receive the IRS inspector general report, he will have to take action - possibly, fire some people. The question is, as in every Washington scandal, is there more to come; is there more than we know now? Was there any kind of involvement above the Cincinnati office of the IRS; any knowledge about this by the White House? So far, we don't have evidence, but that's what we're waiting to find out.

CORNISH: Let's move on to Benghazi and the question over the talking points about that attack. Now, this is an issue that Republicans, clearly, they're not showing any sign of letting up. How could this hurt the president?

LIASSON: Well, I think that this one is less incendiary than the IRS controversy. But that being said, it's not going away. That's not good for the White House, even though you heard the president dismiss it today as a sideshow. Again, there are going to be more hearings here, possibly with more, quote, "whistleblowers" or with the heads of the State Department review board, Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen.

The public, however, is not paying too much attention to this. According to a new Pew Poll, only 44 percent said that they were following the Benghazi hearings closely. If there is a political target here and the potential for political damage, I don't think it's President Obama. It's former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Sen. Rand Paul, who is widely considered to be preparing the groundwork for a presidential race, was in Iowa this weekend, saying that Hillary Clinton wasn't fit for a higher office. She is considered to be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Carl Rove's superPAC has already made an anti-Hillary ad around Benghazi. So 2016 is closer than you think.

CORNISH: Now, the president came in to his second term with some big legislative plans. Do the investigations into Benghazi and the IRS have the potential to undermine that agenda?

LIASSON: Well, it could possibly harden Republicans' determination to block some of the president's nominees. Don't forget, all these fights are related. It was Republican senators' demands that the administration provide the Benghazi emails, in return for proceeding with the confirmation hearings of his CIA director, John Brennan, that led us to the latest round of the Benghazi controversy.

But in terms of legislation, the next big item is immigration. That's something that's proceeding because it's in both parties' political interests, and I don't think that will be derailed.

CORNISH: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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