Scandal in the Age of Obama

Why Washington feeding frenzies aren’t what they used to be.

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.

But in “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother,” Janny Scott, a reporter for the New York Times, tells a different story. She reports that Dunham’s fight with the insurance company CIGNA was not over medical coverage but over a disability claim related to missed work resulting from the cancer. In truth, Scott writes, Dunham had an employer-provided health insurance policy that paid her hospital bills directly, leaving her “to pay only the deductible and any uncovered expenses, which, she said, came to several hundred dollars a month.”

CIGNA behaved obnoxiously in penalizing Dunham for seeing an unapproved doctor in Hawaii, and she did spend some of her last days battling that insurance company, as Obama said. But his mother was not discriminated against because of a preexisting condition, and the disability insurance that was troubling her was not ultimately part of Obama’s health care proposal.

The fact that the president based a chunk of his campaign—and the centerpiece of his legislative program—on a story that wasn’t quite true never registered in the public debate. It never became a major topic of conversation, much less a scandal, and only in part because his mother is dead.

The bigger reason is that it didn’t conform to any perceived pattern in Obama’s behavior. A critical variable in aggressive press coverage is whether a story is consistent with what we think we already know about a politician. If it is, the story is more likely to resonate. If Obama had developed a reputation for tall tales about his background or his family, this story might have ignited.

Contrast this to Richard Nixon, who was seen as shifty and corrupt going back at least to when Dwight Eisenhower nearly dumped him from the GOP ticket in 1952. (He saved himself with the lachrymose “Checkers speech.”) So reporters, egged on by their liberal friends, were prepared to believe the worst when Watergate came along. Even then, it took many months after the June 1972 break-in and aggressive reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein before the scandal broke.

Jimmy Carter came to office in 1977 surrounded by fellow Georgians and carrying a reputation for cold political calculation cloaked in piety. So when his budget director, a good ole boy named Bert Lance, ran into trouble with a bank he owned, the press pounced. New York Times columnist William Safire, determined to prove that Carter was as corrupt as his old boss Nixon, won a Pulitzer for his hounding of Lance (the two later became friends). Unlike Obama’s mother, the president’s clownish brother, Billy Carter, who farmed and owned a gas station, was fair game, especially after he began scheming for business deals with the government of Libya. The Billy Carter scandal coverage also fell into a well-worn genre of reporting on oddball presidential siblings (Sam Johnson and Donald Nixon) and presidential sons (Elliott Roosevelt and Neil Bush).

Ronald Reagan was routinely depicted as detached, even out to lunch. So the Iran-Contra scandal, in which an off-the-shelf foreign policy of trading arms for hostages was run by Oliver North from the White House basement without the president’s knowledge, fell in fertile soil. So did now-forgotten scandals involving a government contractor called Wedtech, Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, and EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford, who was held in contempt of Congress and forced to resign for trying to gut her agency.

Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, ran a relatively clean administration, but he inherited Reagan’s lax view of regulation, which gave some juice to a scandal at HUD in 1989. The savings-and-loan failures, and the resulting bailouts (which cost the taxpayers far more than it looks like TARP will), fit into a pattern of crony capitalism and were often covered as scandals. John Sununu had to resign as White House chief of staff after charging the government for unauthorized trips. That story might not have had legs if it hadn’t fit a different kind of pattern: the press thought Sununu was a jerk and was looking for a way to make him pay for it.

Bill Clinton was dogged by stories of womanizing (Gennifer Flowers) and real estate shenanigans (Whitewater) before coming to office, and the media obsession with them continued once he got there. In those pre-blogging days, the White House had no media defense against right-wing assaults and pseudo-scandals like the travel office firings (allegation: that the Clinton White House used the FBI to go after a former travel office official named Billy Ray Dale), trumped-up charges against former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, alleged Chinese spies, and on and on. As Hillary Clinton complained to me at the time, the so-called “liberal” media—the New York Times and NPR—did nothing to defend the Clintons against coordinated assaults by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, talk radio, and right-wing staffers on the Hill. Worse, this was the era of the special prosecutor, an institutionalizing of the scandal culture that gave reporters a steady stream of leaks, culminating in the Monica Lewinsky story.

Under George W. Bush, scandals like torture at Abu Ghraib prison, the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, cozy contracts with Halliburton (Dick Cheney’s former employer), and the corrupt firing of U.S. attorneys who didn’t toe the White House line all fit a pattern of abuse of power after 9/11. Cheney and others were determined to restore the pre-Watergate culture of unaccountable authority in times of war, and they largely succeeded.

With Obama, the perceived pattern of behavior that he carried with him into office was mostly positive. Being seen as a professorial type who stands above the fray hasn’t always endeared him to the public, but it hasn’t exactly set the stage for scandal either. That, plus his history-making debut as the first African American president and the intense news climate of 2009, may have given him a longer-than-usual honeymoon from the scandal machine.

THE NEWS CLIMATE THEORY

This is the political science theory of the case. There has been surprisingly little scholarship about scandal, but Nyhan, the political scientist, has set out to change that. His explanation is simple:

Got that? Actually, once you ignore the abstruse equations that have come to define modern political science, Nyhan is on to something. His study of scandals going back to the Carter administration suggests that two factors are especially important for a scandal to catch fire: first, an opposition party that views the president more negatively than normal; and second, a slow news period that allows scandals to emerge. Under this theory, scandals are a “co-production” of the press and the opposition party, with each feeding off the other. The party needs the press to publicize allegations of wrongdoing, and the press needs quotes from partisans to legitimize scandal reporting and protect itself against charges of bias.

Nyhan says that Obama’s extremely low standing among Republicans is a “key risk factor,” but that the second variable, a slow news environment, hasn’t been present. He explains how Bush set the modern record of thirty-four months without a negative scandal story on the front page of the Washington Post—the period between his inauguration in January 2001 and the Valerie Plame scandal in October 2003—because of 9/11 and the Iraq War. Now, thanks to the financial crisis, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Arab Spring, the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the debt ceiling crisis, and the threat of a second recession, Obama has broken Bush’s record.

Writing in May, before the Solyndra affair broke, Nyhan predicted that Obama’s scandal-free streak would not last for much longer. His forecasting model showed that the chances of an Obama scandal would exceed 95 percent by early 2012. Republicans, he says, are shifting to the National Labor Relations Board’s tiff with Boeing (right-wingers charge without evidence that Obama partisans have assembled an “enemies list”), and to allegations that the ATF’s bungled Operation “Fast and Furious” (in which straw purchases to track the flow of guns into Mexico led to some weapons falling into the hands of criminals) might become, as Representative Issa claims, “Obama’s Iran-Contra.”

If Solyndra continues to heat up, it will be partly because it connects so directly to disappointment over Obama’s performance on green jobs in particular and the economy in general. In a way, it’s a story that feeds on the dominant news of the day—and the central jobs theme of the 2012 campaign.

Scandals unrelated to such major themes are unlikely to go anywhere in election years, as I learned firsthand many years ago. When Bill Clinton was running for reelection in 1996, I was a regular visitor to Dick Morris’s suite at the Jefferson Hotel. Morris was then a shadowy figure who almost never talked to the press. (When I interviewed him and his sidekick, Mark Penn, I had no idea that a few weeks later a supermarket tabloid would reveal that Morris was getting his toes sucked in the suite by a prostitute.) At the time, Morris’s client, Clinton, was the subject of daily scandal stories about secret Asian fund-raising. Morris waved off the stories, explaining that only a mammoth scandal like Watergate ever has any actual influence over voters. That’s especially true in a bad economy.

THE ETHICAL-TONE THEORY

A fish rots from the head. But it also navigates from the head. The direction a leader charts sends a message to underlings: You’d better follow. Even if the rest of the country is peeling off, the people who work for a president take their cues from him.

From the start, Obama has sent a message of intolerance not just of corruption but even of controversy within his administration. He shoots first and asks questions later when it comes to firing someone who hasn’t yet been proven to have erred.

In July, Assistant Labor Secretary Raymond Jefferson, a wounded Special Forces vet, was alleged to have steered contracts to friends. He was forced to resign, even though the inspector general of the Department of Labor never referred the matter to the Justice Department. Even less well known was the ouster of a National Endowment for the Arts communications official who reportedly tried to get artists to create pro-Obama works of art. In 2009, the White House forced the resignation of Louis Caldera, the director of the White House Military Office, after a screwup over an Air Force One publicity flight over New York. And of course there was the ousting of Van Jones, a White House adviser on green jobs, over some dubious past statements and untrue charges that he had been a “truther” (someone who believes that the U.S. knew of the 9/11 attacks in advance).

The most regrettable dismissal so far was of Shirley Sherrod over a “scandal” trumped up by Andrew Breitbart. In that case, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, not the White House, was responsible for jumping the gun. (And he acted in part because even the NAACP had believed Breitbart’s maliciously edited tape of Sherrod’s speech on race.) But the tone had been set by the man at the top.

Compare that hair-trigger willingness to toss out officials who are in any way fodder for scandal with Bush’s hesitancy to fire anybody, no matter how scandalous. His Enron-linked Army secretary, Thomas White, was the classic example. Joshua Green, who wrote the definitive piece about White and the Bush administration’s tolerance for corruption, in this magazine (“The Gate-less Community,” July/August 2002), noted that White himself was surprised at how long Bush let him stay in office.

If Obama is so adamantly focused on running a clean administration, it may be because he is familiar with the alternative. His political roots are in Chicago, but he isn’t a product of the Chicago machine, his employment of Bill Daley as his chief of staff notwithstanding. In 2005, he and his wife got the help of soon-to-be-convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko on the purchase of a piece of property adjacent to his house on Chicago’s South Side, but he otherwise steered clear of the lowlifes of Illinois politics. He was never a governor and thus never enmeshed in the “pay to play” system especially endemic to governorships, whereby campaign contributors pony up in not-so-subtle anticipation of state government contracts. (Beyond disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, the most conspicuous current example of sleazy pay to play is Texas Governor Rick Perry.) When Blagojevich went down, Obama noted that people go into politics for two reasons: to make money or to serve the public. It’s a simple and useful distinction; whatever one thinks of his presidency, Obama is clearly in the latter category.

From the beginning of his administration, Obama was determined to set a high ethical standard. Yes, when the economy was on the brink of a depression, he stood behind Treasury designate Tim Geithner even though the man almost certainly chiseled on his taxes. And he granted waivers in a few cases to officials who had been lobbyists (for example, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, a former Raytheon lobbyist and procurement expert). But the relevant part of the revolving door is what happens at the exit. And here Obama signed an executive order preventing everyone serving in his administration from lobbying their former colleagues until the president left office. His vetting process was so over the top (thanks in part to Senate Finance Committee staffers) that it prevented many good people from taking government jobs because of minor infractions. (One White House aide designate had to withdraw her nomination because of a meaningless lien on a piece of property.) But the high bar no doubt also prevented some bad people from slipping through.

It’s a trade-off: Obama got fewer swashbuckling entrepreneurs from outside of Washington who have realworld experience and perhaps a few creative ideas—but he also got fewer sleazeballs.

THE FAMILY-MAN THEORY

Of course the most entertaining and explosive scandals involve sex, which reporters and pundits will ride all day and night. But you’ve got to give them something to work with. As far as we know, the president, the vice president, the top White House staff, and the Cabinet members are either committed family men and women or single. Nowadays you need flagrant adultery— or Anthony Weiner-style weirdness—to get some traction with sex. Barack Obama and an intern? Highly unlikely. The first lady would kill him, cover it up, look fabulous at the state funeral—and no one would be any the wiser.

THE OVER-THE-TOP-OVERSIGHT THEORY

When scandals aren’t about sex, they’re usually about money. In Obama’s Washington, the real money is in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), better known (to the dismay of the White House) as “the stimulus.” The stimulus totaled more than $787 billion, an enormous sum and far more in constant dollars than Franklin Roosevelt spent in his first year in office. But where FDR’s early New Deal spending programs were so wasteful that a word was coined for them—”boondoggles”—Obama’s stimulus, while much maligned for not producing more jobs, has been astonishingly clean so far.

The explanation lies in two complementary areas: tough management and transparency. Obama assigned Vice President Biden responsibility for supervising the stimulus, and Biden has performed well, working closely with Earl Devaney, who runs the ARRA oversight. Devaney is a former Secret Service agent and crimebusting investigator for Treasury, Interior, and the EPA who helped put Jack Abramoff away. His Recovery Board includes twelve fellow inspectors general (with seventeen others helping), an oversight structure that didn’t exist during the New Deal and has often been weak in the past.

So far there’s been no major fraud—only a couple million dollars stolen out of the $787 billion. That’s sure to grow, but the 270,000 contractors know that there are a lot of eyes on them. “If you’re a burglar and one house is well lit, you’ll go instead to one that’s not well lit,” Devaney likes to say.

The way he’s lit the house is with Recovery.gov, a Web site with the subtitle “Track the Money.” If entities that have received stimulus money don’t file quarterly reports on how they’ve spent their awards, they will see their names publicized on the site. Sure enough, you can click on “Non-compliers” and learn the names of the 367 wryly named “Non-Compliant Award Recipients.” Almost all the other recipients of grants and loans have spelled out how the money was spent. That doesn’t mean it was spent wisely, but at least there’s less of a chance that it was stolen.

Of course, we can’t know for sure. The decimation of reporting at the state and local levels mean there are few reporters anywhere who make it their business to scrutinize stimulus spending.

THE DISTRACTED-REPORTER THEORY

This is true at the national level, too. Except for a brief moment after Watergate, investigative reporting has never been especially fashionable in Washington. But it has reached a low ebb today. Talk is cheap and reporting is expensive, which means that cable networks, blogs, and even newspapers are moving away from working the streets to working the TV studios. Even experienced reporters often find big chunks of their days consumed by tweeting and trying to get on television. It’s awfully hard to break a scandal that way.

The old business model for journalism is dead, and a new one is still struggling to be born. “There’s less manpower working full-time on investigative reporting on this White House and Congress,” says Mark Feldstein, an investigative reporter turned journalism professor. Investigative reporters, who often work months on a single story, “are the most expensive to hire and first to go.” Feldstein’s recent book, Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture, depicts a time when politicians like Nixon and reporters like Anderson had no scruples about lying, cheating, and stealing to enhance their power. (Were Anderson alive, Feldstein says, he wouldn’t hesitate to hack voice mails for a good story.)

Scandals in the old days were juicy and full of names, thereby increasing demand for them. By collecting scalps, yesterday’s tabloid reporters galvanized change faster than many of today’s worthy media projects, which data-mine effectively but often feel more like GAO reports than sexy scoops. Today, Anderson and other inside-dope columnists like Safire and Rowley Evans and Robert Novak have been replaced by … almost no one. That’s a good thing in terms of improved accountability and accuracy, but it means fewer stories challenging powerful interests. For every Dana Priest, Seymour Hersh, or Michael Isikoff breaking rocks in a painstaking process, there are 200 journalists for whom “shoe leather” means, well, shoe leather. To them, “Digg” is a popularity-based news aggregator, not a way to find stories.

THE INVESTED-INVESTIGATORS THEORY

Even at its peak, investigative reporting depended on officials with subpoena power. These sources in law enforcement and on Capitol Hill fed various reporters, who had few tools for uncovering wrongdoing on their own. But this system depended on sources who were, if not nonpartisan, at least committed to some version of the truth that stood above blatant political ax grinding. Nowadays everyone has an agenda, which makes the information offered the press more suspect.

For instance, Issa, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has no credibility in his probes of the Obama administration. As the New Yorker and the New York Times have amply demonstrated, Issa is a sketchy character with shady business interests that he has used his public office to enrich. He promised a new investigation of Obama every week, but each area of inquiry looked like chicken feed even to Fox News, which always stands ready to inflate the tiniest story about the Obama administration into the new Watergate.

Even when Fox and its allies in the powerful conservative media establishment get traction on a supposed scandal, it doesn’t grip the nation like scandals of old because of its origins in partisan reporting. The stories are combated by fierce blogging on the liberal side. For instance, when Van Jones was wrongly accused on Fox of believing 9/11 was a U.S. plot, a counterassault by liberals kept the mainstream press from taking up the story in a big way. It was seen in a partisan context, which had the effect of protecting the president from a feeding frenzy.

This is a paradox of our hyper-partisan culture. On cable, noise gets the ratings. But at the networks and big papers, some of the old rules still apply. Disinterested journalism makes for more interested readers. The stories they report have more heft when they seem motivated by nothing more than a commitment to good government.

THE OBAMA PARADOX THEORY

An even bigger paradox involves Obama and the power of the presidency. The essence of power is getting people to do what they don’t want to do with carrots and sticks. The carrots can morph into bribery and the sticks into blackmail and extortion, as earmarks and campaign contributions become catnip for corruption.

But some of these techniques are the flip side of political success. Feldstein notes that neither FDR nor LBJ were lawyers. They were interested in results, not strict adherence to the law. “You don’t get the sense that Obama relishes exercising power,” says Feldstein. “He’s both cleaner and less effective than some of his predecessors.”

I’d amend that argument on the effectiveness front; the president has won more than he’s lost over the last couple of years. But whatever his successes and failures in office, he is, as Joe Biden got in trouble for saying in 2007, “articulate and bright and clean.” Polls consistently show that the public agrees. Integrity is a nice calling card in a bruising election. If he manages to get reelected amid sky-high unemployment, this will be a big reason why.

Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is the author of one book about Franklin D. Roosevelt and two about Barack Obama.