Second term US presidencies have a habit of going wrong, as Richard Nixon’s Watergate, Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra and Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinski episodes testify. Hardline Republicans in Washington think they have something similar to pin on Barack Obama after last week’s congressional hearings on the Benghazi attack last September in which the US ambassador and three other officials were killed.
It has unearthed a highly politicised doctoring of inconvenient facts about the incident involving the White House in the closing stages of the presidential elections. A faction fight between the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department saw one agency trying to shift blame on to the other, while the White House was anxious to play down the origins of the attack in al-Qaeda groups. The emphasis put on hostile Muslim reaction to an anti-Islamic film provided a misleading alternative account.
This does not add up to a comparable scandal, but it was culpable and mishandled further it could escalate. It reveals much about the feverish inter-party politicking at this stage of the presidential cycle. Mr Obama is struggling to make progress on second term objectives like immigration reform, gun control legislation and climate change but has problems delivering it through Congress, in part because he has not paid enough attention to courting support there.
His own hyper-politicised administration is quick to see an effort by the Republicans to frame the administration as devious, incompetent and lax on security. All the more so if Hilary Clinton’s emergent presidential campaign can be targeted as well, since she was secretary of state at the time. She was not questioned by the inquiry at the time but is acutely aware of the potential damage such a sensitive issue could do her if she can be shown to have overlooked security precautions and protections in the chaotic conditions of Libya after Gadafy’s overthrow.