Scandal in the Age of Obama: Why Washington feeding frenzies aren’t what they used to be
October 27, 2011
Barack Obama was not in office for more than a couple of minutes, it seemed, before conservatives began trying to cover him in muck. Yet for almost three years, the administration has been scandal-less, not scandalous. In a capital culture that over generations has become practiced at the art of flinging mud pies, Republicans and a few reporters have been tossing charges against a Teflon wall.
First there was the pathetic charge that Obama was born in Kenya and therefore ineligible to be president. The story was heavily stoked by the conservative media, aided by the non-denial denials of GOP leaders, and gave Donald Trump his fifteen minutes of presidential contender fame. It was never taken seriously by the mainstream press, but the president ended the story in April of this year by taking the unprecedented step of releasing his birth certificate, a tacit acknowledgment that the desperate effort to smear him had become a political distraction.
This came after two years in which Fox News and congressional Republicans tried to make the case that Obama had abused his power by hiring unaccountable “policy czars.” Though the agitation lead to the ouster of a low-level White House policy aide, the broader charge never passed the Washington laugh test—policy czars have been fixtures in every administration since Richard Nixon’s.
During the 2010 campaign, Representative Darrell Issa, who would later become chairman of a key congressional investigative panel, called Obama “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.” He then walked the charge back for lack of evidence. Since taking over the committee, Issa has launched a series of investigations into alleged political malfeasance—including, for instance, that DNC fundraisers held in the White House violated the Hatch Act—that have so far yielded nothing.
Conservatives had especially high hopes about allegations that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was illegally doling out waivers to the Affordable Care Act mandates to politically connected businesses and insurers. The conservative columnist Michael Barone called the health waivers part of Obama’s “gangster government.” But when the House Republicans demanded a GAO investigation, the GAO came back with bupkes.
Finally, at the end of August, the collapse of the solar energy company Solyndra into bankruptcy after a half-billion-dollar loan guarantee from the Department of Energy seemed to offer the Republicans the answer to their prayers. For several weeks, the creaky machinery of scandal in the press and on Capitol Hill revved up, with stories detailing how Solyndra executives had been in close contact with White House officials and how some of the company’s investors were high-profile political donors, having raised funds for Obama’s 2008 campaign. It certainly did not help that the president and vice president both touted Solyndra as a stimulus and clean energy success story, Obama doing so in a speech at the company’s factory last May.
But complications soon emerged. Though approved under Obama, the process to secure the loan guarantee had, in fact, begun in 2007 under President Bush. George Kaiser, an Obama fund-raiser initially implicated as the main influence peddler, was only one of the key investors in the firm—so were members of the Walton family, of Wal-Mart fame, and they had given generously to Bush. And some claims in the initial press reports—for example, that the Bush administration Department of Energy had rejected Solyndra’s loan application in its final days in office—later turned out to be flat out wrong (the committee responsible for vetting the project delayed approval by two months, raising some concerns but also suggesting that “the project appears to have merit”).
As these wrinkles started to appear, Republicans did not help their cause when, predictably, they started overreaching. Instead of keeping a narrow focus on the events surrounding how the company obtained funding and then went bankrupt despite red flags, they began to use Solyndra’s failure to implicate the entire loan guarantee program as a socialist Obama boondoggle. But it soon came to light that many of the loudest GOP critics, such as Senator Jim DeMint, had actually voted to establish the loan guarantee program back in 2005.
Investigations are ongoing and questions remain—for instance, what pressure, if any, did the White House exert on the Department of Energy to approve and maintain the company’s loan guarantee—so it’s possible that “Solyndra-gate” could explode into a full category 5 scandal. But on the strength of the evidence so far, that seems highly unlikely.
Obama’s presidency is nearly three years old. It has been nearly four years since the furor over Reverend Jeremiah Wright. During this period, Obama has been reviled by conservatives to a degree matched only by the venom directed at Franklin Roosevelt and, later, Bill Clinton. But the vituperation, distortions, and outright lies have been mostly about policies, alleged policies, conspiracy theories, and ludicrous fantasies.
In all that time—a record span, according to scholars—there has been no major Obama scandal to speak of. Some potential scandals—like Tom Daschle’s back taxes—have been nipped in the bud. (Two weeks after the inauguration, Daschle asked that his nomination to be HHS secretary not be sent to the Senate.) Other stories that might have paralyzed earlier administrations just fizzled.
The question is why.
First, a definition of terms. We’re not talking here about conspiracy theories or self-evident partisan sniping. A true scandal, as Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan puts it, is a “socially constructed event” in which elites decide that a sufficient perception exists that “a public figure has acted in a manner that contravenes established moral, political, or procedural norms.” In other words, a story becomes a scandal when the mainstream press begins treating it as such. According to Nyhan’s criteria, it’s when news stories that use the word “scandal” in the reporter’s own voice start appearing on the front page of the Washington Post. (That hasn’t happened yet with Solyndra.)
The question is, have Obama and his administration objectively engaged in less scandalous behavior, or has some combination of external forces kept scandals from spreading through the public consciousness? And if Obama has managed to build a scandal-proof administration, is that purely a good thing, or has it come at a cost?
Here I humbly offer some theories about how the Washington scandal machine works, and why there has been such a dearth of scandals in the age of Obama. There is, as usual, no one answer; the explanation is likely to involve some combination of the factors cited below.
THE PATTERN-OF-BEHAVIOR THEORY
During the 2008 campaign, Senator Obama, after some prodding by aides, made the death of his mother a part of his stump speech. While delivering his pitch on reforming health care, he told the moving story of Ann Dunham, who died at age fifty-two of ovarian cancer after spending the last months of her life fighting with her insurance company…