Monday, May 30, 2011

The Obama administration's lack of scandals

Brendan Nyhan says that in the post-Watergate era the Obama administration is on an long stretch without having any scandals.
Obama has been extremely fortunate: My research (PDF) on presidential scandals shows that few presidents avoid scandal for as long as he has. In the 1977-2008 period, the longest that a president has gone without having a scandal featured in a front-page Washington Post article is 34 months – the period between when President Bush took office in January 2001 and the Valerie Plame scandal in October 2003. Obama has already made it almost as long despite the lack of a comparable event to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Why?
In Obama’s case, it is clear that external events have consumed much of the news agenda over the last eighteen months, including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Arab Spring revolts, the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the killing of Osama bin Laden. The saturation coverage that these stories received left little room for scandal, particularly given the volume of debate over the merits of the president’s legislative agenda and his confrontation with the new Republican majority in the House.

Other, less quantifiable factors seem to have also played an important role. As the first black president, Obama may be treated less harshly by the press than some of his predecessors. In addition, the birther movement diverted a great deal of conservative time and energy into the false claim that Obama was not eligible to hold office, generating a controversy that received a great deal of media attention but which never made the transition into a full-blown scandal.

That makes sense to me. Though its not like news organizations have to devote every single reporter to these big news stories. I guess they could be putting their best reporters on those stories and thus leaving the scandal investigating to the lesser of the crop. But still, its a big country with a big gov't. You would think a decent reporter could find something.

As Brendan points out, the likelihood of a scandal being discovered is ever increasing given the lack of one occurring already and Republicans being in power. Given Obama's Bush-like views on presidential power I'm sad to say that I'm sure one is brewing. Even if Obama and his close staff are trying their hardest to run things on the up and up I'm sure its too difficult to have everyone else fall in line 100% of the time.

I don't think the press would sit on a story unless it was related to national security (or oddly unless you are a man and you're fucking someone other than your wife). But is it crazy to think that if Republicans in Congress had evidence of a scandal that they could sit on it and release the information at a time they deem best for obtaining their electoral goals? Maybe I'm thinking too much as a rationality assuming political scientist. But if I were a congressman and I had info on a scandal I would at the very least think about how I could best use the info to my personal benefit, and my party's benefit.

It would probably depend on what type of scandal it was. If it was something on the level of Watergate I doubt it would matter when it was released. The damage would be large and the press wouldn't let it go away. But if it was a Valerie Plame type thing where there was malicious intent but the effect of the action wasn't that damaging it would probably be better to break the story closer to the election so that it stays in the news and in voters' minds. And even though I don't want that to happen because I generally want Democrats to win elections, I'm not sure that would be an improper thing to do. If the Obama administration has done something wrong people should know about it and they should think about it when they decide how to vote. Sitting on a scandal would be kind of a cutthroat thing to do. But politics is important and what matters in the end is winning elections and making policy. And a legit scandal is a scandal, regardless of when we find out about it.

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