Keeping the Door Open for the Second African American President

Four years ago, Jonathan Alter wrote a prescient article in the November/December issue of the Washington Monthly about the lack of scandal in the Obama administration. Over the years, various pundits have picked up on that theme.

The latest to do so is Bill Scher – who suggests that perhaps the President has broken the second-term curse.

Presidential scholars have a term to describe the typical experience of a chief executive who wins re-election to the White House. It’s called the “second-term curse.” There’s evidence for it. Midway through their second terms, George W. Bush suffered Hurricane Katrina and the Iraqi quagmire, Bill Clinton was impeached, Ronald Reagan was staggered by the Iran-contra scandal, and Richard Nixon was run out of town.

It is important to keep this in mind when political scientists role our their historical models that predict the impact of a party’s incumbent president on the current election. We haven’t seen a scandal-free second term in a very long time.

I’m sure our Republican friends will counter all this will a “but, but, but…what about Benghazi, IRS, Fast and Furious, etc.” Here’s what Scher says about that:

Obama also mastered the art of scandal management, while his Republican opponents lost credibility by transparently politicizing every investigation. Transgressions are inevitable at some level in any administration, and Obama was prepared to minimize fallout. He was quick to force out compromised underlings, including Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and Secret Service Director Julia Pierson, and knew when to patiently work through a problem, such as with the initial HealthCare.gov website glitches.

In contrast, Republicans never learned how to calibrate their reactions. Instead of following the facts before drawing conclusions, they proclaim the worst—and then fail to prove their allegations. That’s why the pursuits of wrongdoing in Fast and Furious, Solyndra, the IRS audits and Benghazi have all fizzled.

To be honest, there are times I think the Obama administration went too far in trying to protect themselves from a potential scandal. The firing of Shirley Sherrod is a perfect example of that.

But I also know that both Barack and Michelle Obama walked into the White House knowing that they carried a big burden on their shoulders. This is where the Jackie Robinson comparison applies. Any scandal that erupted concerning the first African American family to occupy the office would not merely be seen as another example of the “second term curse.” It would be twisted into confirmation of the racist stereotypes too many Americans still hold about African Americans in general.

Just as Jackie Robinson broke down the color line in professional baseball, the Obama’s have done all they can to keep the door open for the second African American president.

If you want to support more prescient writing from authors like Jonathan Alter here at Washington Monthly, please take a moment to make a financial contribution. Thank you.

Donate Now

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.