Do current scandals have some potential to haunt Obama and Dems in the future?

Like many previous presidencies embroiled in these types of scandals, Obama’s White House has been slow to respond.

Questions:

1. It seems White House is on the defensive these days and has a lot to explain. Do you think that all these scandals are just temporary nuisance for White House and Obama can regain his footing or it could seriously derail his second term agenda?

2. Which of these three scandals (AP, IRS, Benghazi) do you consider most dangerous for Obama and maybe even Democrats? Which one has the biggest potential to haunt them in the future – if any?

3. How would you evaluate White House’s damage control? Are they doing it well or not?

Answers:

Brandon Rottinghaus, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Houston

1. Some scandals are temporary and last only a single day while some linger on. In my research I have found that financial and political scandals last longer than personal ones. The primary cause is that financial and political scandals take longer to investigate. These scandals do have a deleterious effect on governing, where presidents narrow and focus their legislative agenda in the aftermath of major scandals. The President already had an uphill fight for his agenda in Congress in his second term and these scandals complicate that by diverting his attention away from policy matters and by setting a cloud of suspicion over the White House’s policy making.

2. Each scandal is damaging to the White House in different ways. The Republicans can claim in the Benghazi scandal that the White House cannot manage foreign policy and has no coherent agenda for US security and safety. On the IRS scandal, the Republicans can argue that they are being persecuted by an ideological White House that is out to get them. On the AP scandal, the White House looks hypocritical for potentially violating the first amendment.

3. The White House’s response was effective for them. The White House moved quickly to get the issues under investigation by the inspectors general or by the Department of Justice. The sooner the investigation finished and a report can be public, the quicker the White House can move forward. They also sought to distance the president from the matter by claiming he was the “last to know.” This is also strategically smart in an environment where every scandal in compared to Watergate.

Matthew Dickinson, Professor of Political Science and Department Chair, Middlebury College

1. Much depends on whether the scandals “have legs” as we say here. That is, have all the relevant details been uncovered, or will more evidence come out suggesting that the President and/or his immediate advisers in the White House or cabinet were more involved, or haven’t told the full story, with any of these three stories. This is why it is imperative that the Obama administration come clean, as fully as possible, and as quickly as possible, with all pertinent information. In the short run, of course, this will intensify political scrutiny by Congress and the media on the three stories, but this can’t be helped. The release of the emails pertaining to Benghazi illustrates this process – they will be scrutinized, debated and written about, but if they corroborate the Administration’s story of its handling of the crisis, and don’t provide any smoking guns, the story will eventually run its course. What the Obama administration doesn’t want to happen is for a steady drip-drip of allegations leading to a long-term investigation that could morph into a political witchhunt, as happened with the Clinton administration due to the Whitewater investigation that eventually led to the Lewinsky scandal.

Even under the best of circumstances, however, these scandals are a distraction, because they give Republicans in the House additional incentive to delay action on legislation dealing with immigration, tax reform and other Obama priorities. The window of opportunity for any second-term president is amazingly short – perhaps 18 months, before the House and Senate begin focusing on the upcoming midterm elections which historically have not been kind to the sitting president’s party. While nothing is certain, the odds are greater that the President comes out of the 2014 midterms in a weaker political position than he is in now. So it is imperative that he does everything possible now to nip debate over these scandals in the bud, in order to move them off the agenda as quickly as possibly. That means complying with all investigations, being as forthcoming as possible, firing responsible parties, and then moving on.

2. Again, it is hard to judge without fully knowing all the relevant details regarding who made what decisions, when, and how much Obama and his immediate advisers were involved. In terms of negative impact on the public, it is never good to see the IRS targeting particular taxpayers because of their political views – this plays into taxpayers’ worse fears about government power. That’s why Obama took the immediate step of firing the acting IRS commissioner. Benghazi is likely to arouse less public concern unless new facts come to light, since it is a somewhat dated event and some of the leading participants, such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are no longer in office. This won’t stop Republicans and conservative websites and media outlets from playing up the latest emails, but I suspect it won’t arouse as much public passion. The AP story is more worrisome, because it has the potential to snare Obama’s Justice Department and could lead to additional resignations/firings. Freedom of the press is valued quite highly here – particularly by the press! – and therefore they are likely to keep this story percolating until the facts are fully known. That may mean heads have to roll before the story dies down. The press takes no prisoners.

3. Like many previous presidencies embroiled in these types of scandals, they have been slow to respond, and when they have responded they have done so with both aggressive pushback against their accusers, accusing them of trying to score political points, while also expressing indignation and regret that these mistakes were made. This mixed response is not helpful. There are recent signs – see the release of the Benghazi emails, and the firing of the IRS commissioner – that they are realizing that pushback isn’t going to help under these circumstance, and that instead the best strategy is to come clean, accept responsibility, pay the penalty, and try to move these stories off the public agenda as quickly as events will allow. A classic example is the Reagan administration’s handling of the Iran-contra affair. After some initial misstatements by Reagan regarding the details of the affair, he refused to make any more public statements, appointed an individual commission to investigate the affairs, released all relevant documents, and let Congress unleash its investigate fury. After an initial slump in approval as the details of the affair leaked out, Reagan eventually regained his popularity and trust, although it remains a deep stain on his second term. Obama has to hope that none of these three incidents prompt that type of feeding frenzy, never mind a full scale congressional investigation, but he could learn a thing or two from Reagan’s effort at damage control. Confess, come clean, cooperate and move on. These should by the Obama watchwords.

Matthew  Beckmann, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Center for the Study of Democracy, University of California, Irvine

1. My view is that these scandals reflect the environment more than White House missteps. In particular, the combination of divided government, middling presidential popularity, a (typically) diminished second-term agenda, and a 24-hour news cycle means there is a “demand” for this sort of thing. If it wasn’t these, it’d be something else.

2. Based on what we know, it does not seem any of these “scandals” come anywhere near the level of Watergate – an umbrella term for widespread, top-down, illegal activities and general malfeasance. That’s not to say they can’t hurt the President, but it does mean that the biggest danger is their ability to waste precious time; they are highly unlikely to result in impeachment, resignation, or something similar.

3. The White House damage control is reasonable. I’d argue they should try more “new” things to help change the news focus – for example, announce a whole batch of new judicial nominations. They started to do this by relaunching the media shield law, and I’d say they should just do do more more more. But all in all, they’ve been competent if not exemplary.

(Thanks to @SunWuKchung for providing this).

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