Under siege from a series of scandals, the White House urged Americans on Wednesday not to lose faith in their government and promised that the IRS would treat taxpayers fairly in the future.
President Obama, criticized for acting timidly toward the IRS even after a top official apologized for targeting conservative groups, met with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to discuss punishing those responsible. In the wake of an inspector general's report that verified "inappropriate" actions, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president badly wants taxpayers to believe the Internal Revenue Service operates fairly and honestly.
"The president is concerned when you see the kind of activity documented in the inspector general's report by IRS personnel … that can undermine people's faith in the IRS in particular," Mr. Carney said. "It is imperative that action be taken so that Americans understand and believe that the IRS enforces our tax laws in a neutral and fair way to all Americans."
The president's movement highlighted the political damage to the administration caused by the IRS scandal, which only came to light on Friday. Even former administration officials such as Robert Gibbs have criticized Mr. Obama for treating the situation too passively, and other political analysts have warned that the episode would fuel the public's mistrust of big government at a time when Mr. Obama is trying to implement his health care law and to re-engage on gun control legislation.
For example, Sen. Roger F. Wicker, Mississippi Republican and one of the objects of Mr. Obama's recent "charm offensive," said Wednesday that the IRS controversy would make it significantly more difficult for the administration to pass any big budget deal if it includes new taxes.
"I can't imagine that this IRS scandal and the controversy surrounding the overreach and intimidation by the IRS will do anything but pour cold water on the president's attempt to raise taxes as part of a grand bargain," Mr. Wicker said on MSNBC. "So, yes, it will hurt the president in that respect."
The White House wouldn't say whether Mr. Obama wants to fire Acting Commissioner Steven Miller or anyone else. Mr. Carney said only that the president expects "consequences."
And in spite of the documented pattern of the IRS targeting conservatives in the past election cycle, the White House called attention repeatedly to a portion of the IG report that said IRS employees did not appear to be motivated by partisan aims.
"Everyone [investigators] talked to said that they were not motivated by anybody on the outside, that this was not for political or partisan reasons," Mr. Carney said. "Regardless of the intent, the president believes the conduct was wrong."
Asked if Mr. Obama believes the targeting of his political opponents was not motivated by partisanship, Mr. Carney replied, "I don't know that he has any reason to doubt it." But he added that the administration welcomes "legitimate oversight" by Congress on the matter.
Two journalists asked Mr. Carney at his daily briefing Wednesday if the IRS scandal, combined with a Justice Department probe of the news media and allegations that the government initially covered up reports of terrorism in the deadly attack in Benghazi, is causing the public to lose "faith" in the federal government.
"Does the president worry that the people will lose faith in him and in government?" asked a reporter for CNN.
Mr. Carney replied that the government is "substantial," and that Mr. Obama wants all federal employees to perform their jobs diligently and honestly.
"That reflects his view that everyone who works for the United States government needs to hold himself or herself to the highest standards, the standards expected by the American people," Mr. Carney. "And the American people justifiably hold everyone, from the president on down, to those standards."
The president's meeting with the Treasury secretary was only one of a series of actions that the White House put forward Wednesday in an effort to show the president engaged on a wide front for his second-term agenda.
Mr. Carney also said the president had ordered Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to launch a "national conversation" about mental health as part of the administration's effort to reduce gun violence. As part of the effort, Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden will host a national conference on mental health on June 3.
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