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Political Takeaways: Headaches For The White House


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. President Obama will give a speech this week outlining his plans to make his counterterrorism policies more transparent. The address comes after a week that the Obama White House spent on the defensive trying to contain political fallout from multiple controversies. The IRS has been targeting conservative and Tea Party groups that applied for tax-exempt status, and the Associated Press revealed that the Justice Department had secretly obtained the phone records of its journalists. That's all while the White House was already dealing with concerns over its handling of the Benghazi embassy attack and its aftermath. In a moment, we'll dig a little deeper into the IRS controversy. But first, we're joined by NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.


MARTIN: Is this speech that the president is expected to give at the National Defense University simply a way to shift attention after what was really a tough week for the White House?

LIASSON: I think it's more than that. He's been talking about this for some time. Last month, he said that he was going to try again to close Guantanamo, despite a law that Congress has passed that makes it almost impossible to do that. He's also been talking about trying to put Guantanamo and his drone policy inside a legal framework that balances the national security interest of the United States with civil liberties. He in the State of the Union said he wanted to make sure that our detention and prosecution of terrorists were consistent with the law. So, this is something he's been thinking about for some time, but it definitely ties in to the controversy over the Justice Department's effort to obtain those phone records of Associated Press journalists. This has made the civil liberties base of the Democratic Party angry and I think this speech could be a way to address some of their concerns.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little more about those scandals that have preoccupied the White House. The IRS controversy plays directly into Republican suspicions of the Obama administration. Mara, what are some of the takeaways from the week, particularly Friday's congressional hearing?

LIASSON: Well, I think the big takeaway from the congressional hearing is that the number one question that is still unanswered is whether this effort was politically motivated, because Democrats and the president don't like groups that hide behind the tax code to engage in political activity. This is the charge that Republicans make, of course. Or was it sheer incompetence, sloppy work? We heard at the hearings the former acting commissioner of the IRS, Steven Miller, say that he gave horrible customer service and made a lot of foolish mistakes. So, that's the big question that subsequent hearings will try to answer. The other question, of course, is what were Treasury officials told about this investigation when they were informed in the spring that it was going on? I do think the biggest problem that came out of the hearings is that Congress gets very angry when they are not told about problems or feel they were lied to or misled. And Republicans in Congress - and some Democrats - feel that the IRS leadership did not inform them fully about this investigation.

MARTIN: Just briefly, Mara, the two other controversies - the Justice Department subpoena of AP phone records, Benghazi. Any lasting political damage for the president?

LIASSON: Well, I think there's been damage. He's been distracted for sure and the Republicans have been given a tremendous political tool to energize their base in the 2014 midterm elections. It's too soon to say if it's lasting. I think the criteria for that will be if these scandals derail the president's effort to pass immigration reform or get a budget deal and we just don't know that yet.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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