May 30, 2013, 7:14 p.m. ET
A Double-Trouble Scandal for Obama
The Justice Department scandal has outraged two of the president's most reliable allies: the press and liberal activists.
By KIMBERLEY A. STRASSEL
The verdict is still out on how much political damage the current trio of scandals will inflict on the Obama White House. For now, the one that might hurt most is the one the public cares about least.
A new Quinnipiac poll shows President Obama's job approval falling to 45%, but the survey also ranks the public's focus on today's Washington controversies. Nearly 45% of voters said the IRS scandal is most important, followed by 24% who picked Benghazi. A mere 15% thought the Justice Department's seizure of press records was a big deal.
No surprise. The IRS is an agency that touches nearly every American, and both the IRS and Benghazi scandals revolve around the sort of big, breathless questions—Did the White House lie? Was the administration targeting enemies?—that rivet public attention. Most Americans don't much care what happens to the press, and if anything wouldn't mind seeing it get some grief.
What this verdict misses, however, is two important realities. The first is that—unlike the IRS and Benghazi scandals—the facts of the DOJ's press intrusions are clear and uncontested. We know Justice has seized records of reporters, that Attorney General Eric Holder himself signed onto a warrant that suggested a journalist was a "co-conspirator" in a national-security leak. We also know that government has violated its own guidelines on probing journalists.
So this is a scandal that can't be ignored or dismissed as a Republican witch hunt. Moreover, it is a scandal that has, for once, outraged two groups that Mr. Obama deeply depends on for his political success: the press and liberal activists.
For years, much of the Washington press corps has served as this White House's front-line defense. As recently as a month ago, the press was still playing no-see-um with Benghazi.
Yet since the AP story broke, the Beltway media have been doing a passable impression of a credible Fourth Estate. White House press secretary Jay Carney's daily briefings now resemble "Survivor" episodes, with journalists firing off questions, rejecting answers, and even rolling their eyes at responses. The White House's evasiveness on the press scandal has suddenly got the press corps wondering what else this administration isn't being straight on.
It has even led to the extraordinary sight of major media outlets this week banding together to boycott meetings planned by Eric Holder to discuss Justice's press investigations. The organizations balked because the meetings would be off the record. Since the press is not known for resisting the spin of anonymous Obama officials, this reaction is progress.
Will it last? That may depend on how many more revelations about press intrusions come to light. But the notable thing is that Mr. Obama has lost the media's loyalty at this critical moment of his presidency, as other scandals over the IRS and Benghazi continue to swirl.
Then there are the White House's left-wing allies. Justice's press mess is particularly toxic in this regard, since it riles up liberals regarding both press freedom and transparency, while reigniting their long-simmering fury over Mr. Obama's national security policies.
As the Nation's editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel explained on ABC's "This Week," the only "real" scandal is "that this administration picked the baton from Bush and failing to uphold what it promised, has had the worst record on press freedom." She moved on to indict the White House on the Patriot Act and wiretapping. Bloomberg columnist Al Hunt admitted it was "true" that "Obama is no better than Richard Nixon." Liberal radio host Bill Press tweeted: "What 'breach of national security' are we talking about re the AP story? It's BS and Holder should be fired."
Congressional Democrats have shown little appetite for defending the White House on the press issue. The risk to the administration is that Democrats begin to sense it is in their political interest (given the outcry from the left) to actively join in the criticism. Mr. Holder has survived past controversies because they were viewed as Republican attacks. Can he withstand a bipartisan barrage?
The White House's success in last year's election hinged in part on its liberal activists, who played a big role in getting the base out to vote. That's the model Mr. Obama and his Organizing for America political-support group are betting on for the 2014 midterms, too. So you can bet the White House is concerned about the fury coming from these allies now.
That's why, of all the scandals, the White House is pouring the most effort into damage control on Justice. The administration has revived its media-shield legislation. It has been summoning the press to the White House for sweet-talking sessions with the president. The president's speech last week at the National Defense University was a convenient platform for Mr. Obama to reassure liberals he was restarting his drive to close Guantanamo and addressing their concerns on drone strikes.
The left and the press have always been with Mr. Obama when it really mattered, and that may well remain the case. The particular significance of Justice's press scandal is that it has deprived Mr. Obama of support at a time when he is vulnerable on so much else. Who knows what will come of that?