Why Obama Is in Trouble on IRS and Benghazi

After a largely scandal-free first term, President Obama appears likely to spend a lot more time mired in the politics of scandal after last week’s Benghazi hearings and Friday’s revelation of alleged political targeting at the IRS.

My research suggests that the structural conditions are strongly favorable for a major media scandal to emerge. First, I found that new scandals are likely to emerge when the president is unpopular among opposition party identifiers. Obama’s approval ratings are quite low among Republicans (10-18% in recent Gallup surveys), which creates pressure on GOP leaders to pursue scandal allegations as well as audience demand for scandal coverage. Along those lines, John Boehner is reportedly “obsessed” with Benghazi and working closely with Darrell Issa, the House committee chair leading the investigation. You can expect even stronger pressure from the GOP base to pursue the IRS investigations given the explosive nature of the allegations and the way that they reinforce previous suspicions about Obama politicizing the federal government.

In addition, I found that media scandals are less likely to emerge as pressure from other news stories increases. Now that the Boston Marathon bombings have faded from the headlines, there are few major stories in the news, especially with gun control and immigration legislation stalled in Congress. The press is therefore likely to devote more resources and airtime/print to covering the IRS and Benghazi stories than they would in a more cluttered news environment.

Finally, Obama is in his second term, which is when scandals are most likely to take place. After several years with no scandals – the longest of any contemporary president – he had two briefly pop up in April of last year: the GSA and Secret Service scandals. But second terms are far more difficult, as this figure from the paper illustrates using predicted probabilities for a hypothetical president with representative covariate values:

Scandalfig3a

Under favorable conditions like these, I argue, the mainstream media and the opposition party are more likely to engage in the “co-production” of a media scandal, which requires the participation of both parties. The opposition party can’t successfully create a media scandal without sustained critical coverage in the press (see: Fast and Furious) and the media can’t create a scandal without political cover from the opposition party (see: Democrats after 9/11). In this case, not only are Republicans up in arms about IRS and Benghazi, but the press is mobilizing as well – Politico already called the IRS case “[a] classic Washington scandal” and National Journal’s Ron Fournier suggested Obama’s credibility is in question. For the White House, things are likely to get worse before they get better.

Relevant research:

Scandal Potential: How political context and news congestion affect the president’s vulnerability to media scandal

[Cross-posted at Brendan-Nyhan.com]

Brendan Nyhan

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