Obamacare and Benghazi: Is the Real Crisis in American Leadership?

Source: Getty Images

Americans are as satisfied with the economic and political direction Congress and the president are taking the United States as they have been for the past five months; that is to say, not satisfied at all. According to Gallup survey data gathered at the beginning of this month, nearly three in four Americans — or, more exactly, 74 percent — are dissatisfied with the country’s leadership. Since 1979, when Gallup first began this measurement, the highest public sentiment has reached is a reading of 71 percent, which came in February 1999, amid the dot-com boom. The most recent high was touched in August 2009, in the early days of President Barack Obama’s presidency. Then 36 percent of Americans were satisfied with the direction of the country — a significant recovery from the all-time low of 7 percent recorded in October 2008, during the worst of the financial crisis.

Gallup explains the consistency in public opinion through 2014 as the result of political calm, meaning this year has largely been devoid of any major political battles or sideshows in the mold of last year’s government shutdown and the fiscal cliff. It helps that economic progress has been relatively steady — if weak, at times — as well. But, the lack of significant change does not mean that the May reading of public opinion is not without significance. The country’s satisfaction level is poor, and there are a myriad of reasons, from the ongoing weakness in the labor market to the political stalemate in Washington to the numerous controversies that have shrouded the White House.

Issues that have most divided Republicans and Democrats in positions of leadership in the federal government — Obamacare, Benghazi, IRS targeting, economic policy — have contributed to the public’s dissatisfaction. And while there have been no “major political battles” yet this year, the political hangover created by the ongoing partisan fights in Washington over the health care reform and the Obama administration’s competence has irrefutably damaged the public’s assessment of its leaders. But with November’s midterm elections approaching, taking control of the public dialogue on these issues is of utmost importance for first-time candidates, incumbents, and the White House. And, given that background, lawmakers are keeping Obamacare, Benghazi, the controversy in the Veterans’ Affairs administration, and job creation as top political priorities.

Benghazi

Democrat lawmakers in the House of Representatives want to prevent the special committee organized by their Republican colleagues to investigate the Obama’s administration’s response to Benghazi from becoming a forum for developing conservative talking points. While the Democrats disapprove of the inquiry, they have chosen to participate. “That will be our responsibility — to make sure this doesn’t become the ‘select committee on talking points,’” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said at a Wednesday news conference, referencing the Republican insistence that the Obama administration altered its talking points about the attack. “The Republican obsession with Benghazi has not been about the victims, the families or the country,” added Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. It is “not necessary” to participate in a “partisan exercise once again,” she said.

Perhaps more than any other event in Obama’s presidency, the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans proved how difficult governmental transparency can be to implement, especially in a country with as great a partisan divide as the United States. But transparency was what he pledged, and with every promise comes the need to follow through. Congressional Republicans have made the incident a symbol of the failings of the Obama administration. In past nineteen months, conservative lawmakers have accused the White House of orchestrating a coverup of how the attack was handled. And the administration has acknowledged that it did initially blame the assault on the American diplomatic mission solely on fallout from the circulation of the “Innocence of Muslims” video, which sparked protest across the Middle East for its derogatory depiction of the prophet Muhammad.

Earlier this month, the Republican leadership — led by Speaker of the House John Boehner — convened a special committee to examine if the Obama administration misled Congress about how it responded to Benghazi. Congressional Democrats expressed outrage at this move, arguing that the investigation was motivated by political aspirations, as the eight previous investigations into the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack have shown the Obama administration did not purposely mislead the American public when framing it as a response to that derogatory video.

But to ensure Republicans do not produce any misleading information about the causes of the terrorist attack or the Obama administration’s response, five Democrat representatives will join the committee: Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who serves as the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee; Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee; Schiff, a member of the Intelligence Committee; Linda Sanchez of California, a member of the Ways and Means Committee; and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, also a member of the Armed Services Committee. Already, Republicans have “issued unilateral subpoenas, they’ve made substantiated accusations… they falsely accused the secretary of state of misleading Congress about reducing security in Benghazi,” stated Cummings at a news conference. “We need someone in that room to simply defend the truth.”

The “unilateral subpoena” mentioned by Cummings was the order to appear sent to current Secretary of State John Kerry by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, although he was not in office at the time of the attack. “As we have previously communicated to the Committee, we believe there are witnesses better suited to answer questions regarding the Department’s response to Congressional investigations of the Benghazi attacks,” Assistant Secretary of State Julia Frifield wrote in a letter obtained by NBC News. “However, in the interest of accommodation and to resolve once and for all any outstanding, relevant questions, the Secretary is prepared to appear before the committee on June 12 or 20.”

Internal Revenue Service

While evidence obtained by congressional committees suggest that former Director of the IRS Exempt Organizations division, Lois Lerner, guided the agency’s policy on earmarking certain organizations for special scrutiny — evidence that prompted Democratic lawmakers to downplay the scandal as the wrongdoing of one misguided individual — it speaks to a larger truth about the IRS. Taking into account other recent scandals, including excess spending on agency conferences and the inappropriate awarding of employee bonuses, it appears greater oversight is needed and the problems within the agency extend further than the awarding of 501(c) (4) status to social welfare groups that engage in political activity. And that truth could potentially fuel Congress’ extremely partisan debate over IRS corruption, which election year politics has already tainted. Nonprofits — from Americans for Prosperity, a conservative grassroots organization funded the billionaires Charles and David Koch, to the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group that primarily funds Democrats — are expected to spend millions on elections that will determine which party controls Congress.

In 2013, pending the public release of an audit conducted by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, the United States Internal Revenue Service disclosed that it had singled out political groups applying for tax-exempt status for closer scrutiny based on their names or political orientations. On May 10 of last year, Director of the IRS Exempt Organizations division Lois Lerner answered what was later revealed to be a question planted by the agency at an American Bar Association conference in order to reveal that it had inappropriately targeted political groups ahead of the 2012 elections. She confirmed the IRS had taken “absolutely inappropriate” actions, for which the agency was “apologetic.”

Lawmakers have dragged Lerner in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, but her testimonies have offered nothing of value to lawmakers because she invoked her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination during her opening statement at a hearing held last year, a right she has employed in subsequent hearings as well.

Congressional oversight has progressed slowly, and it has proved equally difficult to pen new rules for the awarding of 501(c) (4) status to social welfare groups that engage in political activity. In the wake of the targeting scandal, and at the behest of the federal government, the IRS wrote new regulations intended to limit political activities by tax-exempt organizations and provide guidance on how much political activity such groups can engage in without risking the loss of their special status. The problem is that the period of public comment, which closed at the end of February, produced more than 15,000 comments, the biggest public response to any proposed rule in the agency’s history. And those comments filled the spectrum from positive to negative, forcing the IRS to announce a delay to upcoming public hearing and the implementation of the rules.

“Given the diversity of views expressed and the volume of substantive input, we have concluded that it would be more efficient and useful to hold a public hearing after we publish the revised proposed regulation,” IRS spokesman Bruce Friedland told The New York Times. Republicans argue that the rules will enable the Obama administration to further quash the Tea Party and other conservative allies. For example, Orrin Hatch of Utah — the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee —  called the delay a long overdue step in the right direction. “The IRS is right to abandon its previously proposed rules governing 501(c)(4) organizations that threatened free speech and the rights of all American citizens to participate in the democratic process,” he said in a statement. “I am glad the IRS heard the concerns of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and I will continue to advocate for an IRS that is independent and nonpartisan.”

But Democrats are also concerned; some liberals and watchdog organizations that favor limiting political spending by nonprofits have argued that greater restrictions are needed to prevent what they see as abuses of tax exemptions by openly partisan organizations. In contrast to Hatch, Democrat Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York said the “delay is deeply disappointing and a real setback for democracy and faith in government.”

Veterans Affairs

While the Veterans health care scandal has spent far less time in the political limelight of Washington, it is a very important piece evidence of what the Republican party sees as President Barack Obama’s executive inaction and administrative failings; a piece of evidence that could help turn November’s election into a referendum on the president, as the GOP hopes.

In November, the results of an investigation conducted by CNN revealed that veterans of the U.S. armed forces are needlessly dying because of delays in diagnosis and treatment. An internal document from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs obtained by the publication painted a picture of government health care bureaucracy that overlooked simple medical screenings, like colonoscopies and endoscopies, that could have prevented a number of deaths. At least 82 veterans have died, are dying, or suffered serious injury as the result late diagnoses that postponed important treatment. Interviews CNN conducted with experts show that the veterans agency was aware of the situation but did almost nothing to remedy the life-threatening medical delays. Rather, the agency attempted to cover up the improprieties. And that picture of incompetence embroiled the Veterans Affairs department in controversy, and put its secretary on the defensive in front of a Senate regulatory body.

If the allegations prove to be true, as the CNN documents suggest, the Obama administration and Shinsei will have failed to deliver the reform promised when the secretary took office in 2009. “I came here to make things better for veterans,” Shinseki told the senators Thursday, acknowledging that reform had been his mandate. “This is not a job. I’m here to accomplish a mission.” And his mission from the president was to change the Veterans administration culture so that it would be more responsive to veterans’ needs. But as CNNs investigation has shown, system-wide problems remain. VA health clinics in Phoenix and Fort Collins, Colorado, drew especial notice for the elaborate schemes used by administrators to hide the records of patients would waited months for care. But now “it seems that every day there are new allegations,” according to Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the committee. It has been revealed that five other facilities, including ones in Cheyenne and San Antonio, used similar manipulations.

“If somebody is mismanaging or engaged in misconduct, not only do I not want them getting bonuses, I want them punished,” Obama told reporters during a Wednesday press conference. But like Shinseki, he urged patience alongside his outrage. “So that’s what we’re going to hopefully find out from the IG report as well as the audits that are taking place,” he added. But even Democrats have begun to pressure the president, asking why the administration has been slow to take action regarding the VA when Obama has labeled 2014 has his “year of action.”

Of course, Republican criticism is sharper. “Whether it’s talking about accountability without holding anyone accountable or relying on internal political investigations instead of getting the truth, we are seeing a pattern in Obama’s lackluster management style,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told Politico. “Obamacare, Benghazi, the IRS targeting scandal and now the deaths at the VA, Americans don’t want to be asked for more time, they want to know action is being taken.”

More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet:

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS