By Tom RaumWASHINGTON -- Alleged misbehavior by the Internal Revenue Service and other federal agencies gives the GOP something else to talk about and investigate as the economy clearly, if slowly, recovers on President Barack Obama's watch, robbing Republicans of a central argument against Democrats. Amid a series of recent positive economic reports, the Republican Party is revving up its portrayal of the Obama administration as scandal-ridden and inept, while largely abandoning the party's where-is-the-recovery criticism. Republicans had little choice, given that the economy has gained considerable strength over the past 18 months. Today, the federal budget deficit is shrinking rapidly and tax receipts are rising. Consumer confidence and spending are up, as are auto and housing sales. Stocks are near all-time highs. Such improvements give U.S. policymakers some rare breathing room, even if the nearly 12 million people still out of work don't discern the brighter picture. While unemployment is at 7.5%, it's down from the 10% of October 2009. Also, recent job creation in the private sector has been relatively strong. Republicans, who earlier stressed the weak recovery and what they depict as Obama's economic mismanagement, are now busy denouncing his administration on several fronts: for allowing the IRS to target conservative groups for extra tax scrutiny; for engaging in an alleged cover-up on the nature of a deadly terrorist attack on a U.S. post last September in Benghazi, Libya; and for secretly seizing records of journalists from The Associated Press and Fox News. Obama and Democrats are trying to look beyond the ethics investigations to talk up the recent economic gains and the president's efforts to promote more jobs. He has been trying to draw attention to his job-creation ideas in a series of out-of-town events before audiences of workers. As a result of fiscal improvements, the annual federal budget deficit will drop this year to $642 billion after four consecutive years of $1 trillion-plus annual shortfalls, the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office reported this past week. The Treasury says it will pay down a small portion of the national debt this quarter for the first time in six years.