What Happened to the Obama Scandals?
A few months ago, political scientist Brendan Nyhan started warning that Barack Obama was due for a major scandal. Nyhan had analyzed previous two-term presidents and determined that by this stage of his second term, particularly with low approval ratings among the opposition party and a lack of major stories dominating the news for long periods, a president stands a strong chance of being engulfed in the kind of controversy that can hobble or even undo a presidency. Nothing was certain, of course—Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton didn't see their all-consuming scandals until the sixth year of their presidencies, which would give Obama a few months—but conditions were ripe.
And for a few weeks there, it seemed like the prediction would come true. The news media became simultaneously fascinated with three separate issues—the attack in Benghazi, I.R.S. scrutiny of conservative groups, and Justice Department surveillance of reporters—and it seemed like something scandalous was sure to emerge. Some people (including yours truly) even thought that regardless of whether any actual wrongdoing was uncovered, the hunger among the GOP base to impeach Obama would be such that Republicans in Congress would be unable to resist it even if they wanted to.
And yet, not two months after that extraordinary week in which those three stories broke through, they've all come to naught. Republicans tried so, so very hard to find that someone in the administration had done something appalling or illegal during or after the Benghazi attacks, to no avail. Few people apart from journalists themselves got all that upset about the administration's zealous campaign against leaks. As for the controversy with the greatest potential to become a real scandal, the more official investigators and the press examined what happened at the I.R.S., the more it became apparent that not only was there no White House involvement, Tea Party groups weren't alone in having their 501(c)(3) applications run through absurd hoops. Groups advocating for Palestinian rights, legalization of marijuana, and open-source software—not exactly a bunch of conservatives—were subject to the same interrogations. Each potential scandal now looks less serious than it did. There were no smoking guns, no damning documents, no shocking testimony. There will be no impeachment after all, at least for now.
Which is good news not just for the Obama administration, but for the country as well, because it tells us that in the end, the facts rule the day. It turns out that you can't make a real scandal out of nothing but baseless speculation and dark insinuation. You can attract some attention, even get people repeating the word "scandal" if there isn't a lot going on at the time and you've got a big enough calliope with lots of whistles to blow steam through. But to accomplish a political goal beyond just making the other side exasperated for a while, there has to be something substantive there.
I know what you're thinking: Ken Starr would beg to differ. But the 1990s were recent enough that the memory of those times has probably made Republicans more cautious. The sane among them remember how they earned the public's contempt (and a midterm election loss) for their fevered desire to bring down a president, for their prurient fascination with the details of Bill Clinton's sex life, for their inability to see when they had lost and let the whole thing go. They won't be going down that road again unless they've really got the goods.
So I'll admit that I was wrong when I wrote two months ago that there could well be an impeachment, not because any actual malfeasance would be revealed, but because the fact that people were talking about these controversies would cause the pressure from the right to build and build, until John Boehner faced a choice between allowing an impeachment vote or getting deposed by his caucus. It seemed to make sense at the time, when some Republicans were already talking about not whether but when Obama would be cast from office. "Of all the great cover-ups in history—the Pentagon papers, Iran-Contra, Watergate, all the rest of them," said Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, Benghazi "is going to go down as most egregious cover-up in American history." Mike Huckabee predicted either impeachment or resignation: "I believe that before it's all over, this president will not fill out his full term." But that turned out to be little more than bluster (and don't forget, it has never taken much to get somebody on the right to advocate impeachment; one Republican or another has called for Obama to be impeached over everything from increasing the debt to not extending the Bush tax cuts to just being a Kenyan).
And for all that talk of scandal the public's view of Obama hasn't altered much. In fact, his approval ratings are not only virtually unchanged since before the "scandals" emerged, they're about where they've been since midway through his first year in office, after the honeymoon wore off. About half the country thinks he's doing a good job, and about half the country disagrees. So it has been, and so it shall likely remain.
There could be a real scandal around the corner, of course. But what if there isn't? What if Barack Obama finishes his tenure with nothing more than the kind of minor and mid-size controversies that beset any president? Can you imagine the pain conservatives will feel if we arrive at January 2017, Obama boards Air Force One for one last trip home to Chicago, and this was all there was? If there was no impeachment, no super-scandal that would stand alongside Watergate and Iran-Contra, no public reckoning for the endless crimes they imagine he has committed? Just picture them watching Obama smile and wave, his two terms done, with much to be proud of and his reputation intact, while they sit before their televisions, white-knuckled fists crushing tricorner hats into shapeless, defeated clumps of torn felt and cardboard, all that rage undiminished and unredeemed.
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