The Obama Administration’s First Scandal: General Services Administration Spending

The first Obama scandal has arrived.

Last May, I wrote a column on how the Obama administration had managed to avoid scandal* for longer than we might otherwise expect:

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?

I attributed Obama’s resilience in part to “the number and magnitude of competing news stories” during his tenure, which I show play a key role in the likelihood and severity of presidential scandal (PDF). (See Jonathan Alter’s Washington Monthly piece for a discussion of other possible explanations.) However, I predicted that the “the likelihood of a presidential or executive branch scandal before the 2012 election are quite high” and that, “[g]iven Obama’s reputation for personal integrity, the controversy will likely concern actions taken within the executive branch.”

Obama survived for longer than I expected since that column was published. Despite close calls with Solyndra and Operation Fast and Furious, Obama broke George W. Bush’s record in October for the longest scandal-free period among presidents in the contemporary era using the measure described above from my research (a front-page Washington Post story focused on a scandal that describes it as such in the reporter’s own voice) — see Elspeth Reeve’s coverage at The Atlantic Wire here and here.

Today, however, my predictions were validated when the Washington Post published a front-page story that twice describes a controversy over alleged excessive spending at a General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas as a “scandal.” In print, the story ran under the headline “GSA rocked by spending scandal” (PDF). While this controversy seems unlikely to have much staying power or to damage Obama politically, its emergence is consistent with the news cycle theory I advance — the improving economy and Mitt Romney’s impending triumph in the Republican presidential nomination race have reduced the newsworthiness of two stories that have dominated the news in recent months, which in turn increases the likelihood that allegations of unethical or improper behavior will receive prominent coverage. The question now is whether the GSA controversy signals the resumption of scandal politics as usual in Washington.

* I define scandal as a widespread elite perception of wrongdoing. My research analyzes the effects of political and media context on when scandals are thought to have occurred, not whether Obama or other presidents actually engaged in misbehavior (a question that cannot easily be measured or quantified objectively).

[Cross-posted at Brendan-Nyhan.com ]

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.