Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Obama’s Lack of Scandals

Brendan Nyhan says it’s remarkable that Obama’s first term has been so scandal-free:

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. Why?


I’d suggest the reason is because we have a bizarre and pointless definition of a political “scandal.” The public and the media think it’s a scandal when a politician gets caught having an affair; in reality, this kind of thing is so ubiquitous — I bet you can count on two hands the number of members of Congress, male or female, who have not cheated on their spouse — that it should scarcely be noticed.

We also consider it a scandal when someone is caught enriching themselves through their office. This, again, is so routine and common that we should be fairly jaded to it by now.

What we rarely consider a scandal is when a politician blatantly expands their own power and violates the constitution with regularity. In a sane world, Obama’s daily abuse of power in his exercise of executive authority would be a huge scandal. But in the world we inhabit, it is almost entirely ignored by the media and the voters. The only ones talking about it are crazy civil libertarians like me.

Such abuses of authority should, in a sane and just world, be enough to bring down a president and get him impeached. It should have happened to Bush and it should be happening to Obama. But it isn’t. Because scandals are reserved for blowjobs and bribes, not destroying the constitution and the rule of law.