Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - President Obama found himself in the unusual position on Monday of echoing GOP outrage over revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted Tea Party groups, while slamming his adversaries for creating "a sideshow" for reviving a long simmering imbroglio over his administration's response to last year's attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Libya.
By the end of the day on Monday, the administration found itself battling yet another potential crisis as lawyers for the Associated Press charged that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for the AP in what the news agency called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news.
"We take seriously our obligations to follow all applicable laws, federal regulations, and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations," the Justice Department said in a statement in response to the AP's allegations. "Those regulations require us to make every reasonable effort to obtain information through alternative means before even considering a subpoena for the phone records of a member of the media."
Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, and will likely face questions on the matter.
"This is obviously disturbing," said Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Committee. "Coming within a week of revelations that the White House lied to the American people about the Benghazi attacks and the IRS targeted conservative Americans for their political beliefs, Americans should take notice that top Obama Administration officials increasingly see themselves as above the law and emboldened by the belief that they don't have to answer to anyone."
Obama stopped short of apologizing for the IRS or calling for any particular action against agency officials in his first public comments since the IRS acknowledged last week that employees in the Cincinnati office routinely required conservative organizations seeking non-profit status to undergo more scrutiny.
But Obama said that anyone found to be guilty of such actions should be held accountable, while calling the actions by agency personnel "outrageous."
"I've got no patience for it," the president said in a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was visiting the White House on Monday. "I will not tolerate it."
But on a second battlefront with Republicans, the ongoing confrontation over the administration's response to last year's attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, Obama is not giving an inch.
Republicans hammered Obama during last fall's presidential campaign over inaccurate comments made by Susan Rice, Obama's ambassador to the United Nations, made days after the incident suggesting the attack was related to protests spurred by an anti-Islamic video.
And Republicans have revived scrutiny of the White House on Benghazi in recent days, including last week's House Oversight Committee hearing that featured the No. 2 U.S. official in Libya at the time of the attack describing how his pleas for a military response to the assaults were rejected.
Last week, internal e-mails unveiled showed that his senior aides and State Department officials edited out references to terrorism in early "talking points" put out by the administration last September.
But the president pushed back, saying his administration officials have been forthcoming about Benghazi and suggested that Republicans are more interested in scoring political points than figuring out how to prevent such incidents from happening again in hot spots where U.S. diplomats and other personnel are deployed.
"There's no 'there' there," Obama said.
From a strictly political calculus, Obama's sharply contrasting responses to the two brewing scandals-dismissive on Benghazi while expressing outrage over the actions of IRS personnel-- are easily explained.
The public paid limited attention to last week's congressional hearings on Benghazi, according to a Pew Research Center poll published on Monday. Forty-four percent of Americans say they are following the hearings very or fairly closely, virtually unchanged from late January when Hillary Clinton testified. Last October, 61% said they were following the early stages of the investigation at least fairly closely.
But getting picked on by the IRS, whether you agree with the Tea Party or not, is something that folks of all political stripes can relate to.
"It's like a tire, they wear out after a while if you keep driving them," said John Straayer, a political scientist at Colorado State University. "This thing with the Internal Revenue Service could resonate with people for a while, just because it is the IRS and people can relate to it in a way ... but I'm not sure how much staying power that it will have either."
With the IRS debacle, lawmakers - including Republican upstart Sen. Marco Rubio - are effectively raising questions about how this could happen under the watch of someone who promised to bring a new kind of leadership to Washington.
Rubio, of Florida, on Monday called for Obama to fire acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller and filed legislation that establishes "mandatory termination and criminal liability for Internal Revenue Service employees who willfully violate the constitutional rights of a taxpayer."
Republicans are likely to "roll" the Benghazi and IRS scandals to push the message of executive branch incompetence, Straayer said. And they are certain to keep up the drumbeat on Benghazi if Hillary Rodham Clinton decides to make another run for presidency.
But on the flipside, Obama may be able to turn GOP fervor to his benefit, Straayer argued.
"He needs to reframe the whole thing as a package of diversionary sideshows that this party has chosen to use in place of serious governing," Straayer said. "He needs to make the case that they're focused on these scandals instead of dealing with pragmatic solutions to the country's problems. What that will get him? I don't know."
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday deflected questions on whether the IRS and Benghazi controversies could make it even more difficult for Obama to work with Republicans in Congress who have proven resistant to working with him on his legislative agenda.
At a fundraiser in New York for Democratic Congressional candidates, Obama lamented that some Republicans are "fearful of their base and they're concerned about what Rush Limbaugh might say about them."
"My intentions over the next 3½ years are to govern," Obama said. "If there are folks who are more interested in winning elections than they are thinking about the next generation then I want to make sure there are consequences to that."
Contributing: Kevin Johnson