Under siege from a series of scandals, the White House announced the first head to roll in the unfolding IRS scandal and urged Americans not to lose faith in their government.
President Obama, criticized for acting timidly toward the IRS even after a top official apologized for targeting conservative groups, appeared at a hastily arranged afternoon press conference in the East Room of the White House to announce the resignation of the acting head of the Internal Revenue Service, Steven Miller.
He made the announcement after meeting with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to discuss punishment for those responsible for what the president has called “inappropriate” IRS actions.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president wants taxpayers to believe that 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.
The president’s move to take charge of the IRS matter highlights the political damage inflicted on the administration by the scandal, which came to light 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.
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 more 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.”
In spite of the documented pattern of IRS targeting of 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 whether 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 whether 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, Libya, 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,” said 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 ordered Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to initiate 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.