When the storm of administration scandals first hit President Barack Obama, he offered a good impersonation of Claude Raines in "Casablanca," expressing shock that gambling was going on in Rick's saloon. His verbal outrage at the snooping of the IRS and his Justice Department was intense, but not very reassuring.
That's why the next day he announced the dismissal of the acting IRS director as a quick response to the disclosure of the tax agency's intrusion, which was reminiscent of the Watergate era. But on Thursday, Mr. Obama declined to apologize for his administration's reactions to the Benghazi terrorist attacks and for the secret scrutinizing of Associated Press reporters' phone calls.
What at first sight smacks of a combination of bureaucratic stupidity and a witless war on freedom of the press has thrown Mr. Obama and his merry band of do-gooders into a defensive tizzy, threatening to put his whole administration on the skids.
The relatively swift display of strong presidential action to rein in the alleged excesses of tax-exemption monitors was an overnight phenomenon. In the process, he abandoned his initial determination to wait until all the facts were in regarding the IRS fiasco to identify and deal with the wrongdoers. Such a delay would have supported the nation's highest standards of fairness, but it also would have created the impression of the president as fiddling as his administration was burning.
In Mr. Obama's never-ending determination to convey himself as Dudley Do-Right, his first display of caution came as even his supporters yearned for a bit of fire-breathing ire over self-evident abuses of power. In all this, a chief collaborator was his condescending press secretary, Jay Carney, who daily feeds crumbs of alibis to the White House press corps over what is "inappropriate" to reveal to the public.
At Mr. Carney's first West Wing briefing after the scandals broke, he endlessly fouled off pitches inquiring about Mr. Obama's intentions to deal with the triad of the IRS, Justice and Benghazi fiascos. With each deflected pitch, the press spokesman assured the assembled newsies of the president's support of "unfettered" journalistic pursuit of the truth.
Mr. Carney at one point Tuesday scoffed at a reporter's inference of a comparison with Richard Nixon of Watergate infamy. The press secretary was right in noting that nothing yet surfacing in the current situation remotely compared to the presidential cover-up of the Watergate saga.
But that fact does not change the reality that the recent revelations of administration ham-handedness leave Mr. Obama with a colossal mess that only swift and comprehensive remedial action is likely to dispel. Unfortunately, the president's first-term record of sweet reasonableness toward the congressional Republicans has convinced many critics he is, and remains, a pushover.
In the wake of his reelection last November, Mr. Obama signaled a new firmness toward his opposition and that he was through being Mr. Nice Guy. He held firm to the political suicide pact of sequestration requiring deep slashes in government services. But when the furloughing of flight tower controllers caused air traffic difficulties and Congress demanded relief from the inconvenience, Mr. Obama rolled over.
In the latest scandals, politically the president could not afford further delay in finding at least one sacrificial lamb for the latest screw-ups. But that may not be enough to check the growing public impression that his administration has been laggard or inattentive in conducting the people's business.
Mr. Obama's political opponents already are salivating over the chance of adding bureaucratic corruption to the mix. House Majority Leader John Boehner wasted no time calling not merely for a firing but for a designated culprit to go to jail.
Mr. Obama's hopes for a second-term fresh start are now imperiled by the prospect that voters will reassess him as incompetent. Nor can he risk being judged a leader who settles for tough talk when they want action against revealed abuses of governmental power.
That challenge explains Wednesday's quick public beheading of the IRS official. But it won't satisfy calls for further administration clarifications of questions surrounding the Benghazi episode, or why the feds had to spy on the AP reporters in a blatant threat to press freedom, when alternatives were available to get the information they sought.
Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.