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Obama's No-Win Press Conference

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President Barack Obama holds a joint press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron on May 13, 2013, in Washington. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama holds a joint press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron on May 13, 2013, in Washington. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Five years ago this spring, I was in Philadelphia watching candidate Barack Obama defuse a dangerous controversy over race in American life. It was masterful.

Five years later here in Washington, I have just watched President Barack Obama do just the opposite: He failed to tamp down the fires of two controversies that are singeing his presidency.

Perhaps the president wasn't more successful because he was all too aware that whatever he said -- and however he said it -- his GOP (and now media) critics would not be satisfied.

In dispassionate fashion, the president denounced what he characterized as the alleged behavior of Internal Revenue Service bureaucrats who singled out conservative groups for scrutiny.

From a legal point of view, the former constitutional law professor was correct to withhold anger and judgment about the IRS practices in 2011 and 2012, which he said he only learned out from public news reports last Friday. "If the IRS engaged in the kinds of practices" alleged, Obama said, "it is outrageous and there is no place for it."

But the IRS officials involved have already admitted that they did engage in at least some of those practices.

The president became a little more animated toward the end of that answer, but not much.

The real questions about the IRS are: Who ordered that targeted scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status? Who knew about those actions at the time? Who has learned about them in the meantime?

You don't have to be a Republican conservative or a tea party member or a hardened cynic to wonder who in the Obama campaign or the Obama White House might have known about inquiries into the tax status of Obama's foes.

After the press conference, a top White House aide defended the president's caution in issuing a conditional condemnation of IRS actions.

"In fairness to the president," he said, "we haven't seen any report. We know nothing that wasn't in the press. So condemning people without even seeing a report would be irresponsible."

On Benghazi, Obama derided the inquiry into the chain of emails and drafts that resulted in the now-infamously incorrect "talking points" followed by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. He called the inquiry a "political circus" and signaled that the White House would resist further probing by congressional committees.

Obama offered a perhaps too-clever-by-half defense of the talking points. He said that three days later he had sent a top official to Capitol Hill, and that official gave the correct explanation of the Benghazi attack. So the criticism of the talking points "defies logic."

"Who executes a three-day cover-up?" he asked rhetorically.

Here's an unsolicited piece of advice that applies to all presidents. Don't use the word "cover-up" in the process of arguing that there wasn't a cover-up.”

As for this spring in Washington turning into a political circus, it already is one.

This article has been updated with comment from a top White House aide.

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