President Barack Obama goes into the 2012 with a weak economy that may doom his re-election. But he has one asset that hasn’t received much attention: He’s honest.
The sight of Texas Gov. Rick Perry tumbling out of the clown car recently as a “birther” (or at least a birther-enabler) is a sign of weakness, not just for the Perry campaign but for the whole Republican effort to tarnish the president’s character.
Although it’s possible that the Solyndra story will become a classic feeding frenzy, don’t bet on it. Providing $535 million in loan guarantees to a solar-panel maker that goes bankrupt was dumb, but so far not criminal or even unethical on the part of the administration. These kinds of stories are unlikely to derail Obama in 2012. If he loses, it will be because of the economy — period.
Even so, the president’s Teflon is intriguing. How did we end up in such a scandal-less state? After investigating the question for a recent Washington Monthly article, I’ve been developing some theories.
For starters, the tone is always set at the top. Obama puts a premium on personal integrity, and with a few exceptions (Tim Geithner’s tax problems in 2009) his administration tends to fire first and ask questions later. The best known example is Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department official who was mistakenly fired by her boss over a miscommunication that led higher-ups to believe — wrongly — that she had made inappropriate racially tinged remarks. In several other cases, the decision to give staffers accused of wrongdoing the boot was made within hours, taking the air out of any possible uproar.
But the White House’s intense focus on scandal prevention has had mixed results. The almost proctological vetting process has ended up wounding Obama as much as prospective nominees. He gets cleaner but often less imaginative officials. The kind of swashbuckling figures from the private sector who might have, say, come up with a far more ambitious job-creation plan often don’t bother to apply for government service these days.
The vigilance about wrongdoing has worked better when it comes to oversight of the $787 billion stimulus program. The money might not always have been spent on the right things. But a rigorous process supervised by Vice President Joe Biden, and made transparent with the help of recovery.gov, has prevented widespread fraud and abuse.
Unfortunately, we might not know of scandals in stimulus spending or elsewhere because of changes in the news business. For today’s media, talk is cheap and reporting is expensive. That means we get more chatter and less scrounging for official wrongdoing.
In the past, many of those scandal stories originally came from congressional investigators and others with subpoena power. But with the demise of the Office of Independent Counsel, a fount of information for reporters from the Reagan to the Clinton eras, the machinery of scandal-hunting began crumbling.
It doesn’t help that so much “news” coverage — as opposed to commentary that is explicitly opinionated — nowadays takes place in a partisan context. Fox News has tried to flog stories on manufactured controversies like “policy czars” in the White House (which go back to the 1970s) or whether it was wrong for Elizabeth Warren to consult with state attorneys general on their lawsuits against mortgage lenders. (It wasn’t.)
Every time Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican from California who leads a House investigative committee, calls the Obama administration “corrupt” without offering any evidence, he hurts his cause. It’s much harder to make a story register as a bona fide scandal when the political motivation is so obvious.
It’s also harder to find room for such stories when so much other news is breaking. Scandals like the Monica Lewinsky affair were almost a luxury of good times, when the nation could afford to obsess about a blue dress. Not these days.
These factors are all relevant, but the ultimate explanation can be found at the top. According to a metric created by political scientist Brendan Nyhan, Obama set a record earlier this month for most days without a scandal of any president since 1977. The streak probably won’t last, especially if he gets a second term, where scandals are more common. But the impression of rectitude will be part of the voters’ assessment of him next year. He’ll need it.
Jonathan Alter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.”