TODAY   |  May 18, 2013

Obama administration reels from controversy

The White House is struggling to find its footing this weekend after three controversies rocked Washington this week, and there are new questions about whether President Barack Obama’s second term agenda could be derailed. NBC’s Kristen Welker reports.

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>>> reeling, trying to deal with three big controversies. could that derail the second-term agenda. kristen welker is live at the white house with the latest.

>> reporter: you are right. that is the question. this is one of president obama 's worst weeks to date and it ended with a contentious congressional hearing and the outgoing irs commissioner under fire. in his weekly address, president obama tried to shift focus away from the mounting controversies and back to the economy.

>> more than anything, the american people make me optimistic about where we're headed at a nation.

>> reporter: nothing could overshadow the fireworks on capitol hill friday. when acting irs commissioner steven miller , who tendered his resignation earlier this week, testified.

>> we centralized cases based on political activity.

>> reporter: he apologized that groups had been targeted for extra scrutiny. the tactic was a foolish mistake, miller said, but not a case of politics.

>> why did you mislead congress and the american people on this?

>> mr. chairman, i did not mislead congress nor the american people . i answered the questions as they were asked.

>> reporter: this after the white house trying to tamp down criticism over the response to the benghazi attack, released 100 pages of e-mails and notes on wednesday. and the president came under fire this week for the justice department 's widely criticized seizure of journalist phone records.

>> how do you feel about comparisons of your critic's comparisons of this week's scandals to nixon?

>> reporter: the scandals could threaten the second-term agenda.

>> a relatively limited window to get things done, and this is eating into it.

>> reporter: the irs controversy could have the most staying power , because the agency impacts average americans.

>> the irs knows the controversy is the one easiest to understand and could be the most damaging.

>> reporter: another reason the irs scandal has staying power , friday's hearing is likely the first in a series of hearings and investigations. white house officials say they and the president learned about the irs targeting last week. erica.

>> kristen welker at the white house this morning. kristen , thank you.

>>> john harwood , chief washington correspond spoenent with more. when you look at the scandals, irs , benghazi , a.p. issues, is the white house handling this correctly?

>> hard to say whether they are handling it correctly, erica, until more time passes and we see the president's political standing. they ended the week on an aggressive note. slow on irs , but waited until they got the i.g. report and fired steven miller . that was adecisive step and the president rejected calls for a special counsel . on benghazi , they finally released e-mails after republicans did some political maneuvering to put out stories on the benghazi attack. and ap phone roecords case, they did lay out their rationale and support a shield law .

>> what does this do to the second-term agenda? are we starting to work their way to washington?

>> it potentially could interfere with his agenda, but, remember, republicans themselves have powerful incentives to cooperate with him on some issues like immigration, they need that to broaden their party base and on the budget deficit , the debt dealing that's potentially going to ripen later in the year, both sides have to get something done. they have reason to work together.

>> there is caution, even though there is red meat . there is caution from former speaker newt gingrich about tempering expectations here and being more conservative in the way they are going after these things.

>> no question about it they saw under newt gingrich , it backfired in 1998 when they overplayed their hand against bill clinton . the republican party , it's not that their base is not fired up about disliking president obama and what democrats stand for. the problem, the base isn't wide enough. they need to bring more people in, and there is a question as to whether they go so aggressively, they impede their party in a way that makes it more appealing to more people.

>> how are all of these issues affecting what the american people think about the administration and republicans? either one coming out ahead at this point in terms of public opinion ?

>> clearly irs has the most staying power . let's parse that. the ap phone records, that's a decision made in a case that can't be talked about a whole lot. those of us in journalism may be upset, the public may not be all that upset. and just liken hans enhanced interrogation during the bush administration . benghazi , the more we learn about the aftermath, the less it looks like a scandal and more it looks like typical bureaucratic and public relations maneuvering. the irs if it's partisan, then that's very bad and the white house is involved it could be extremely damaging to the president. those haven't been proven yet, even though many republicans assume and believe it's true.