President Obama on Thursday portrayed the IRS targeting of tea-party groups as an innocent attempt at efficiency by bureaucrats that went awry, and he expressed surprise that people were outraged by the episode.
In an interview with “Hardball” host Chris Matthews on MSNBC, Mr. Obama showed none of the outrage that he himself displayed in May, when he fired the acting commissioner of the IRS.
“You’ve got an office in Cincinnati in the IRS office that, I think, for bureaucratic reasons is trying to streamline what is a difficult law to interpret about whether [a] nonprofit is actually a political organization … ” Mr. Obama said. “And they’ve got a list. And suddenly, everybody’s outraged.”
The president went on to tell the liberal commentator, “There are some so-called progressives and … perceived-to-be-liberal commentators, who during that week, just were outraged at the possibility that these folks … had been, you know, at the direction of the Democratic Party in some way, discriminated against tea party folks. That is what gets news. That’s what gets attention.”
Mr. Obama’s attempt to portray the IRS scandal as a simple bureaucratic snafu, rather than a partisan targeting of his administration’s opponents, contrasted sharply with the indignation the president displayed when he learned about the affair. In May, Mr. Obama ordered Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to fire acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller.
The president then went on national TV and said of the IRS affair, “It’s inexcusable and Americans are right to be angry about it. And I’m angry about it.”
In the wide-ranging interview conducted on the campus of American University in Washington, the president also criticized congressional Republicans for allowing lawmakers affiliated with the tea party to block most legislation, including comprehensive immigration reform.
“They’ve gotta be embarrassed,” Mr. Obama said of Republican lawmakers. “I actually think there are a bunch of Republicans who want to get stuff done. They’ve now been in charge of the House of Representatives … for a couple of years now. And they just don’t have a lot to show for it.”
He added, “The problem is not, generally speaking on the Democratic side. And obviously, I’m partisan here. [But] there’s so much focus on the politics of the base and Republicans being worried about getting challenged during the primary season that that inhibits a lot of cooperation.”
The president touched on several other topics:
⦁ On Obamacare’s faulty rollout, Mr. Obama said part of the problem was that the federal government is poorly organized. “The challenge, I think, that we have going forward is not so much my personal management style or particular issues around White House organization. We have these big agencies, some of which are outdated, some of which are not designed properly.”
⦁ On getting more young people to sign up for Obamacare: “For young people to recognize that it is in their financial interest and their health interest to be able to get ongoing preventive care, to be able to get free contraception and … benefits that … without fear of going bankrupt or making their family bankrupt if they get sick — that’s somethin’ that’s priceless.”
⦁ On his administration’s efforts to enforce the Voting Rights Act: “Our Justice Department’s gonna be staying on them. If we have evidence that you have mechanisms that are specifically designed to discriminate against certain groups of voters, then the Justice Department will come down on ‘em and file suit.”
⦁ On Pope Francis: “I think Pope Francis is showing himself to be just an extraordinarily thoughtful and soulful messenger of … peace and justice. I haven’t had a chance to meet him yet. But everything that I’ve read, everything that I’ve seen from him, indicates the degree to which he is trying to remind us of those core obligations” to help the poor.
⦁ On whether he’ll support Vice President Joseph R. Biden or former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for president in 2016: “Not a chance am I going there. Both Hillary and Joe would make outstanding presidents and possess the qualities that are needed to be outstanding presidents.”