Scandal free, so far

Presidential scandals have been a political norm for generations, but those who rely on salacious White House controversies and feeding frenzies have been left wanting the past couple of years. Love President Obama or hate him, he’s run a tight ship and to date has been scandal free.

Brendan Nyhan has done some interesting work on this.

One of the least remarked upon aspects of the Obama presidency has been the lack of scandals. Since Watergate, presidential and executive branch scandal has been an inescapable feature of the American presidency, but the current administration has not yet suffered a major scandal, which I define as a widespread elite perception of wrongdoing. What happened, and what are the odds that the administration’s streak will continue?

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.

The pieces are certainly in place. There’s a sizable segment of the population that loves negative information about the president; there’s an angry opposition party desperate to tear the president down; and there’s a media establishment that would love to sink its teeth into a scandal.

And yet, so far, nothing.

Nyhan notes that there have been a variety of high-profile “external events have consumed much of the news agenda over the last eighteen months,” leaving less time for reporters to pursue potentially-scandalous stories. That may well be a factor.

But in order for the media to latch onto a scandal, there needs to be a story for them to pursue. The Obama administration, to date, hasn’t offered so much as crumbs to those seeking a presidential scandal. With this in mind, perhaps the more precise question is how and why Obama and his team have governed with integrity for the last two and a half years.

Some of this may have to do with lessons learned — these officials saw what the nation had just endured during the Bush/Cheney era, and committed themselves to avoiding even the appearance of wrongdoing. We’ve also seen this administration act quickly to nip potential problems in the bud, before they go anywhere. (In some instances, such as Shirley Sherrod, they’ve acted too quickly.)

But I tend to think the best answer is probably the most obvious: Obama and his team just aren’t corrupt.