WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, seeking to regain his footing amid controversies hammering the White House, named a temporary chief for the scandal-marred federal tax agency Thursday and pressed Congress to approve new security money to prevent another Benghazi-style terrorist attack on U.S. diplomatic missions abroad.
The efforts did little to satisfy Republicans, who see the controversies as an opportunity to derail Obama’s second-term agenda. The leader of the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner, suggested the White House had violated the public’s trust, and he promised to “stop at nothing” to hold the administration accountable.
“Nothing dissolves the bonds between the people and their government like the arrogance of power here in Washington,” Boehner said. “And that’s what the American people are seeing today from the Obama administration — remarkable arrogance.”
A trio of headaches has consumed the White House for nearly a week: The targeting of conservative political groups by the Internal Revenue Service; new questions about the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year; and the Justice Department’s seizure of journalists’ phone records.
Of the three controversies, the president’s advisers see the IRS matter as the most likely to linger. At least three congressional committees are planning investigations into the tax agency that touches the lives of nearly every American.
Obama, who was criticized by both opponents and allies for his measured initial response to the IRS targeting, vowed to ensure the agency acts “scrupulously and without even a hint of bias.”
“I think we’re going to be able to fix it,” he declared during a joint news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Soon afterward, Obama appointed senior budget official Danny Werfel to temporarily run the IRS, one day after Acting Commissioner Steven Miller’s forced resignation. The White House is expected to nominate a permanent commissioner later this year.
However, the president knocked down the prospect of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS, saying the congressional investigations and a separate Justice Department probe should be enough to nail down who was responsible for improperly targeting tea party groups for sometimes burdensome scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status.
Tea party groups generally advocate limited government. They emerged after Obama took office and take their name from the 1773 protest in Boston by American colonists against taxation without representation in the British government.
The news conference marked Obama’s first comments on the government’s widely criticized seizure of telephone records of reporters and editors of The Associated Press in an investigation of news leaks. The president spoke of the importance of striking a balance between “secrecy and the right to know” but said he would make no apologies for trying to protect classified information that could put Americans at risk.
“I’ve still got 60,000-plus troops in Afghanistan, and I’ve still got a whole bunch of intelligence officers around the world who are in risky situations,” he said.
“Part of my job is to make sure that we’re protecting what they do, while still accommodating for the need for information.”
The president said he continues to have confidence in Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been the target of intense criticism from lawmakers after the phone record subpoenas were made public.
The IRS and phone records controversies have coincided with a revival in the Republican-led investigations into the September attacks in Benghazi, which claimed the lives of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
Congressional Republicans held new hearings on the Benghazi attacks last week, and a congressional official also released details of emails that Republican lawmakers said suggested a government effort to downplay the role of terrorism in the attack, which occurred two months before the presidential election.
The White House, which has long disputed allegations of a coverup, released 100 pages of documents Wednesday in an effort to put an end to protracted controversy.
Obama, who angrily cast the investigations as a “sideshow” earlier this week, tried to turn the focus Thursday to Congress.
He urged lawmakers to provide more money to strengthen security at U.S. diplomatic missions around the world.
“We need to come together and truly honour the sacrifice of those four courageous Americans and better secure our diplomatic posts around the world,” Obama said. “That’s how we learn the lessons of Benghazi. That’s how we keep faith with the men and women who we send overseas to represent America.”
The State Department is seeking about $1.4 billion for increased security; the money would come primarily from funds that haven’t been spent in Iraq.
Since the attack, Democrats have complained that Republicans cut $300 million from the Obama administration’s budget request of $2.6 billion for diplomatic and embassy security in 2012.