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Obama on the Defensive Over Political Controversies

FILE - President Barack Obama is seen delivering a weekly address.
It has been five months since President Barack Obama was inaugurated for a second four-year term amid great expectations from many of his Democratic supporters. But that air of hope and expectation has quickly faded in the shadow of scandal, controversies and the hard political realities of a divided Washington.

President Obama finds himself on the defensive these days, most recently over the revelations of secret anti-terrorism programs run by the National Security Agency.

The president was asked about it during his recent trip to Europe.

“I am confident that we can strike this right balance and keep our people safe, but also preserve our civil liberties even in this Internet age,” Obama said.

The controversy over NSA programs that gather widespread information about telephone and Internet communications is the latest in a series of major political distractions for the Obama White House.

The administration was already on the defensive over revelations the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups seeking tax exempt status. And Republicans continue to press the administration about its handling of last September's terrorist attack on the U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya.

The IRS scandal has re-energized conservatives like Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who spoke to a recent Tea Party rally.

“It is an abuse of power and it fits into the pattern of the Obama administration of abusing government power and then misleading the American people about it,” Cruz said.

Analyst Stuart Rothenberg told VOA’s Encounter program that the controversies engulfing the Obama White House have temporarily derailed the president’s domestic agenda.

“The entire tone and substance of the media coverage has changed. It is about what the White House knew, what the government did. Is the government too big? Too dangerous? It is playing right into the Republican message. So I think the president is in trouble. Not personally, but the administration is in trouble. It is going to take their attention and it really gives the Republicans an opportunity to criticize and attack,” Rothenberg said.

Rothenberg also says Obama faces another challenge that every second term president is forced to deal with.

“There is some fatigue, I think, a natural fatigue that the voters have when one party controls the White House for four, five, six, eight years,” he said.

The scandals and controversies that have dominated Washington in recent months have reinforced the political polarization that has been intensifying in the capital for several years and have made it difficult for the president to get his agenda through a divided Congress.

John Fortier with the Bipartisan Policy Center says second-term presidents often shift their emphasis to foreign policy when their domestic agenda is stymied in Congress.

“You often see presidents turning more to foreign policy in the second term, and that is because with Congress at least partially in the hands of the other party it is harder to get your direct domestic agenda done," he said. "You are also experienced on the world stage and you are looking for a legacy.”

But even with partisan gridlock in Washington, Fortier still believes there is a chance Congress will pass immigration reform, which he says would be a major achievement given the current political climate.

“It is not the norm for second-term presidents with the other party in charge of at least part of Congress to get lots of the president’s agenda [passed]," he said. "Sometimes there is a big deal, and immigration would be a big deal, a big victory for the president and probably a good thing for Republicans as well. But the system does not allow for large numbers of bills to go through, especially in divided government.” .

The controversies may be taking a toll on the president. Several national polls show Obama's approval rating has slipped in recent weeks. The latest CNN-ORC survey showed the president's approval at 45 percent, down eight points from the previous month.
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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.