The Scandalous Lack of Obama Administration Scandals

If you ask many Republicans, they'll tell you that Barack Obama himself and the administration he leads are deeply, profoundly, fundamentally corrupt. It isn't just that they have the wrong values or the wrong policy priorities, but rather that they are practically a band of criminals bent on destroying America and unconcerned about what violations of law and morality they commit as they cut a swath of misery and destruction across our nation.

For some on the right—the cynical politician, the carnival-barking radio host—these ideas are a tool to use in a partisan game. They understand that the picture is an absurd one, but they also know it's useful in keeping the rabble roused. But for many others, from ordinary voters to Republican lawmakers, it's something they sincerely believe. So five years into this presidency, where do we stand with the scandals that were supposed to lead to Barack Obama's downfall? The truth—no doubt a painful one for Republicans—is that there's almost no there there. Or more precisely, what we have are a number of disconnected screw-ups and errors in judgment, most of which are not even worthy of the name "scandal." Given the last few decades of history, and given the size and scope of the federal government, that's quite an achievement.

So let's take a look back and see what happened to all these affairs that never turned out to be the scandals conservatives hoped they would be. Just to be clear, when I use the word "scandalous" in this list, I don't mean "bad." When you say, for instance, that there has been little evidence of anything scandalous occurring in Benghazi, conservatives often reply, "Four people died!" Indeed they did, and that was terribly tragic, but that doesn't necessarily make it a scandal. Two hundred and forty-one Americans died in the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon, but it wouldn't be accurate to call that a "Reagan administration scandal," because while there were some bad decisions made with awful results, there wasn't any criminality or corruption or cover-up, the things we usually associate with scandals.

To make a truly meaningful administration scandal, you need two things. First, there has to be some kind of criminal or morally atrocious behavior somewhere, which we can put under the general heading of "malfeasance." People doing their jobs poorly isn't enough to make it a scandal. Second, you need the involvement of highly-placed administration officials. Only an affair with both features is a scandal. If a ranger at Denali National Park in Alaska is found to be running a moose-based prostitution ring, that's only an administration scandal if people high up in the administration knew about it. On to our list:


The Energy Department gave loans to a bunch of companies with promising green technologies, including this one. When the price of silicon collapsed, the company's technology was no longer cost-effective, and they soon went bankrupt. The most scandalous thing that happened was that people in the administration sent a lot of panicked emails back and forth because they were embarrassed about the failure of the company, which they had repeatedly touted.

Conclusion: Involvement of high administration officials, but no malfeasance.

Fast and Furious 

Beginning in the Bush years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives used a tactic known as "gunwalking," where they allowed straw purchasers to buy weapons in the hopes that they could track the guns' progress to Mexican drug gangs and eventually disrupt the traffic. One gunwalking operation that began in 2009, Fast and Furious, was terribly mismanaged, and they lost track of guns that wound up with the gangs; one of these guns was found at the site of a shootout where a Border Patrol agent was killed.

Conclusion: Possible malfeasance, no high administration official involvement.


Four Americans are killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate. One investigation after another concludes that while evidence of anti-American hostility was not taken seriously enough and more should have been done to enhance security, no one intentionally left anyone to die and there was no cover-up.

Conclusion: High administration official involvement, no malfeasance.


Deluged with applications by Tea Party groups claiming to be "social welfare" organizations, poorly trained IRS officials give some of these groups extra scrutiny in reviewing their applications for charitable status. It is later revealed that many liberal groups got similar extra scrutiny.

Conclusion: No malfeasance, no high administration involvement.

Aggressive leak investigations

The Justice Department sought phone records for the Associated Press and listed a Fox News reporter as a possible criminal co-conspirator in an investigation, making it harder than ever for reporters, particularly national security reporters, to discover information and keep their sources confidential.

Conclusion: Probably no malfeasance (they were technically within their legal rights), probable high administration involvement.


There are also little things that pop up for a week or two and then disappear, like the time the GSA spent all that money on silly conferences. But when you look over this list, what's striking is that none of them comes within a hundred miles of the scandals that most recent two-term presidencies have eventually become embroiled in. And despite all conservatives' efforts, none of them have brought Barack Obama down.

Republicans will say that these things haven't been scandals because the media have refused to investigate them, which is just ridiculous. All of these stories got plenty of coverage at the time they emerged and in many cases for some time after, and major news organizations did their best to investigate them. The problem conservatives have isn't that they weren't covered, it's that the coverage ran its course and then petered out, because nothing scandalous was revealed. To show you the depths of disingenuousness conservatives will plunge to, consider this report from the Media Research Center. They breathlessly report that the television networks devoted 44 times as much air time to the Chris Christie Bridgegate scandal than they have to the IRS scandal in the last six months—88 minutes for the former, and only two minutes for the latter. Conservative writers wrote columns about this terrible media bias based on the MRC's findings. But if you're saying, "Hold on, I know there was more than two minutes of coverage of the IRS scandal, because I saw plenty of it," you're on to something. That's because the IRS story broke last May, eight months ago. So if you ignore the two months after the story broke, when it got lots and lots of coverage, it got almost no coverage! Which is like saying the media ignore the Super Bowl, if you look only at their coverage from March until September.

That's the kind of pathetic excuse for analysis produced by the right's leading media watchdog. If you were a conservative, wouldn't you be embarrassed by that? And wouldn't you also be embarrassed that your side's investigative efforts in Congress are led by Darrell Issa, who has done analogous things (like leaking partial transcripts of testimony that turn out to be completely misleading) that end up only serving to make him look foolish? The pursuit of the allegedly corrupt Obama administration and the allegedly in-the-tank media is being led by a bunch of buffoons who undermine their credibility every time they open their mouths. Issa is now planning to spend his last year as head of the oversight committee focusing on Benghazi, the IRS, and Fast and Furious. Seriously.

So what can we conclude from all this? There are three possible explanations for the lack of a major scandal in the Obama administration. The first is that something truly horrific has gone on, but as of yet it hasn't been discovered. The second is that the scandals we know about haven't been fully investigated, and will eventually yield more wrongdoing than we currently understand. And the third is that the administration has not, in fact, committed any horrible crimes. Which seems most likely?

That isn't to say that they haven't made plenty of mistakes, because they have. And there are three years left in Obama's term, so you never know—maybe someone will discover that he's having an affair with Jennifer Lawrence, or that Valerie Jarrett is a mole for the Yakuza, or that those FEMA concentration camps are real. But there's also the chance that he'll end his term without any major scandal, which would be quite something.

A final note: The question of whether we should think of NSA spying as a scandal in these terms is a complicated one that I'm going to have to leave for another day.

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