Obama's crappy week

In just a couple of days, Obama's government machine had managed to inflame both their political opponents and the press to apoplexy, writes Nicky Woolf.

I arrive back in America after a brief sojourn in Blighty to find Obama suddenly floundering. After the bullishness of his State of the Union address just a few months ago, the dreaded second-term blues have struck with brutal suddenness. 

It wasn't enough that the gun control legislation so cherished by his administration appears to have foundered on the rocks of an obstructive congress. Nor that, a couple of weeks ago, the same congress in its infinite recalcitrance allowed the country to fling itself off the sequestration cliff. Nor even that Republican insistence that the State Department's handling of the Benghazi attacks was mismanaged continues to hang around like a terrible smell on a breezeless day.

First to emerge this week was the bigger scandal: that the Internal Revenue Service has been intentionally targeting right-wing groups, including Tea Party groups for extra and unfair scrutiny, singling them out by name. It is unclear as yet whose initiative this is, but it has rightly caused a storm of outrage from all over the political spectrum. 

Punch-drunk and struggling to regain control of the news agenda, Obama demanded – and got – the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner, Stephen Miller on Wednesday, but this appears not to have worked; congressional Republicans have the scent of blood now. If they can prove the White House was encouraging the IRS to target right-leaning political organisations – extremely unlikely though this is – it could be Obama's Watergate. Much more likely is that such a link won't be found, but every Republican committee-chair in both houses will be queuing up to take a swing; to grandstand and to drag Obama through the mud. 

Enter Representative Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, whose hearings this week have shaped him as a sort of nemesis-figure for the administration, and whose new-found fame will only grow as the story develops with him in the limelight.

Just the IRS scandal would have been enough to rock the administration. But the week held more. On Monday it emerged that the Department of Justice had secretly obtained several months' worth of records from private phone conversations between editors and reporters at the Associated Press as part of an investigation of a leak – an unprecedented liberty to take with the freedom of the press.

In just a couple of days, Obama's government machine had managed to inflame both their political opponents and the press to apoplexy. 

Everyone on the government side, in fact, spent the week furiously buck-passing. At first, Attorney General Eric Holder, up to bat against the inescapable Issa, defended the phone record seizure; then, in exchanges with Issa at the latter's committee hearings that became extremely heated indeed – at one point Holder dramatically snapped back at Issa, calling his conduct “unacceptable and shameful” - but ultimately shoved the responsibility for ordering the subpoena on his deputy, James Cole.

 Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has spent an unenviable week trying desperately to keep his boss away from both scandals – which has ultimately meant dumping blame on those in the DoJ and the IRS, attacking the Republicans as acting for partisan gains. 

He hasn't been particularly successful. This is the kind of week that can hobble a Presidency. With Issa, revelling in the spotlight, set to grill former IRS commissioner Doug Shulman next week, various committees of both houses of congress are now piling in to add their own investigations, looking for their own slice of the publicity pie. It looks certain that things are going to get worse for the Obama administration before they get better.

 

Obama speaks in the Rose Garden as a marine shelters him from the rain. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.