Features

November/ December 2011 Scandal in the Age of Obama

Why Washington feeding frenzies aren't what they used to be.

By Jonathan Alter

But in “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother,” Janny Scott, a reporter for the New York Times, tells a different story. She reports that Dunham’s fight with the insurance company CIGNA was not over medical coverage but over a disability claim related to missed work resulting from the cancer. In truth, Scott writes, Dunham had an employer-provided health insurance policy that paid her hospital bills directly, leaving her “to pay only the deductible and any uncovered expenses, which, she said, came to several hundred dollars a month.”

CIGNA behaved obnoxiously in penalizing Dunham for seeing an unapproved doctor in Hawaii, and she did spend some of her last days battling that insurance company, as Obama said. But his mother was not discriminated against because of a preexisting condition, and the disability insurance that was troubling her was not ultimately part of Obama’s health care proposal.

The fact that the president based a chunk of his campaign—and the centerpiece of his legislative program—on a story that wasn’t quite true never registered in the public debate. It never became a major topic of conversation, much less a scandal, and only in part because his mother is dead.

The bigger reason is that it didn’t conform to any perceived pattern in Obama’s behavior. A critical variable in aggressive press coverage is whether a story is consistent with what we think we already know about a politician. If it is, the story is more likely to resonate. If Obama had developed a reputation for tall tales about his background or his family, this story might have ignited.

Contrast this to Richard Nixon, who was seen as shifty and corrupt going back at least to when Dwight Eisenhower nearly dumped him from the GOP ticket in 1952. (He saved himself with the lachrymose “Checkers speech.”) So reporters, egged on by their liberal friends, were prepared to believe the worst when Watergate came along. Even then, it took many months after the June 1972 break-in and aggressive reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein before the scandal broke.

Jimmy Carter came to office in 1977 surrounded by fellow Georgians and carrying a reputation for cold political calculation cloaked in piety. So when his budget director, a good ole boy named Bert Lance, ran into trouble with a bank he owned, the press pounced. New York Times columnist William Safire, determined to prove that Carter was as corrupt as his old boss Nixon, won a Pulitzer for his hounding of Lance (the two later became friends). Unlike Obama’s mother, the president’s clownish brother, Billy Carter, who farmed and owned a gas station, was fair game, especially after he began scheming for business deals with the government of Libya. The Billy Carter scandal coverage also fell into a well-worn genre of reporting on oddball presidential siblings (Sam Johnson and Donald Nixon) and presidential sons (Elliott Roosevelt and Neil Bush).

Ronald Reagan was routinely depicted as detached, even out to lunch. So the Iran-Contra scandal, in which an off-the-shelf foreign policy of trading arms for hostages was run by Oliver North from the White House basement without the president’s knowledge, fell in fertile soil. So did now-forgotten scandals involving a government contractor called Wedtech, Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, and EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford, who was held in contempt of Congress and forced to resign for trying to gut her agency.

Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, ran a relatively clean administration, but he inherited Reagan’s lax view of regulation, which gave some juice to a scandal at HUD in 1989. The savings-and-loan failures, and the resulting bailouts (which cost the taxpayers far more than it looks like TARP will), fit into a pattern of crony capitalism and were often covered as scandals. John Sununu had to resign as White House chief of staff after charging the government for unauthorized trips. That story might not have had legs if it hadn’t fit a different kind of pattern: the press thought Sununu was a jerk and was looking for a way to make him pay for it.

Bill Clinton was dogged by stories of womanizing (Gennifer Flowers) and real estate shenanigans (Whitewater) before coming to office, and the media obsession with them continued once he got there. In those pre-blogging days, the White House had no media defense against right-wing assaults and pseudo-scandals like the travel office firings (allegation: that the Clinton White House used the FBI to go after a former travel office official named Billy Ray Dale), trumped-up charges against former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, alleged Chinese spies, and on and on. As Hillary Clinton complained to me at the time, the so-called “liberal” media—the New York Times and NPR—did nothing to defend the Clintons against coordinated assaults by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, talk radio, and right-wing staffers on the Hill. Worse, this was the era of the special prosecutor, an institutionalizing of the scandal culture that gave reporters a steady stream of leaks, culminating in the Monica Lewinsky story.

Under George W. Bush, scandals like torture at Abu Ghraib prison, the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, cozy contracts with Halliburton (Dick Cheney’s former employer), and the corrupt firing of U.S. attorneys who didn’t toe the White House line all fit a pattern of abuse of power after 9/11. Cheney and others were determined to restore the pre-Watergate culture of unaccountable authority in times of war, and they largely succeeded.

With Obama, the perceived pattern of behavior that he carried with him into office was mostly positive. Being seen as a professorial type who stands above the fray hasn’t always endeared him to the public, but it hasn’t exactly set the stage for scandal either. That, plus his history-making debut as the first African American president and the intense news climate of 2009, may have given him a longer-than-usual honeymoon from the scandal machine.

THE NEWS CLIMATE THEORY

This is the political science theory of the case. There has been surprisingly little scholarship about scandal, but Nyhan, the political scientist, has set out to change that. His explanation is simple:

Got that? Actually, once you ignore the abstruse equations that have come to define modern political science, Nyhan is on to something. His study of scandals going back to the Carter administration suggests that two factors are especially important for a scandal to catch fire: first, an opposition party that views the president more negatively than normal; and second, a slow news period that allows scandals to emerge. Under this theory, scandals are a “co-production” of the press and the opposition party, with each feeding off the other. The party needs the press to publicize allegations of wrongdoing, and the press needs quotes from partisans to legitimize scandal reporting and protect itself against charges of bias.

Jonathan Alter , a columnist for Bloomberg View, is the author of "The Promise: President Obama, Year One." He is a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.

Comments

  • kay sieverding on October 24, 2011 11:02 AM:

    I am a registered democrat and was a big Obama supporter.

    I think it is a scandal the way that DOJ treated me. I sued DOJ in 2009 because I was held a prisoner without a criminal charge, arraignment or bail hearing for 5 months in 2005-2007. I don't have a criminal record. I actually sued DOJ under the Privacy Act meaning I sued the governments' computer systems. In order to avoid a hearing on the merits, DOJ under Obama filed affidavits that a warrant for my arrest captioned "Kay Sieverding v. Colorado Bar Association" for "failure to appear" in a civil hearing (which is not a crime recognized by Congress) was entered into the Warrant Information Network computer system. I got the manual and it shows that when a warrant is executed, i.e. someone is arrested, the system automatically generates closed caseload reports. I got the closed caseload reports for the USMS deputies that DOJ claimed were assigned the original warrant and a fugitive warrant -- Paul Sever in Western Wisconsin and Roberto Rodriquez in Colorado, and their closed caseload reports don't show my name in the time period in which I was arrested (May 2007) so therefore I think that in order to win my lawsuit, DOJ subornaed perjury. When DOJ is involved in a lawsuit, the assigned lawyer has access to the system records.

    I think I should have been able to rely on a lawyer working at DOJ after Obama was elected to tell the truth and not to submit perjury in order to win a lawsuit.

    Another "scandal" during the Obama administration is that DOJ applied the same scanned signature to affidavits under penalty of perjury to at least five documents submitted on different days under 28 USC section 1346 even though those documents are supposed to have original signatures signed on the date on the document. The signature was for William E. Bordley, USMS assistant counsel, who is blind. When they submitted the five documents purporting to have Mr. Bordley's original signature but substituting a scanned signature, none of the five documents acknowledged that Mr. Bordley is blind and can't read anything unless it is in braille. That is on DOJ's web site in an old article about FOIA staff.

  • pandera on October 24, 2011 12:45 PM:

    Ugh. Three pages in and the answer to why there seems to be very few scandals in the Obama administration is (drum roll) - because his administration hasn't done anything wrong and was very vigilant in vetting appointees. Perhaps somebody could tell me why this article was written. Six pages!? Or is this some kind of post-modern comedy piece?

  • technerd on October 24, 2011 7:31 PM:

  • Binky the Bear on October 24, 2011 8:23 PM:

    Because the media are run by the corporations just like Obama is run by the corporations. See also Church Committee reports.
    There will be a scandal in the unlikely event he actually does something besides kill foreigners and continue Bush foreign and domestic policy.

  • Sarah on October 24, 2011 9:16 PM:

    The media ignores and/or covers up the problems with Obama - and they are many. No mention of Fast and Furious? Blowing off half a billion dollars to Solyndra? Not to mention Lightsquared, the Fisker fiasco, more czars than any other president, Van Jones was the czar he brushes off who still works behind the scenes and is an avowed radical and communist...we only are shown the surface because our media is in love with Obama and takes good care of him. When he loses badly in November 2012, maybe the ugly underside of this administration will come out in better detail.They are not scandals but cash for clunkers, the mortgage program that helped very few, wasting 800 billion dollars in so-called stimulus money should also be considered scandalous. This article is a crashing bore written by a blindly enamored writer who can't give up the Obama fantasy.

  • Fr0sty on October 24, 2011 9:30 PM:

    No scandals during the Obama administration? Hogwash. There have been plenty, and the only reason they haven't blown up is because Alter and his "journolist" friends are tireless water carriers for the administration. Alter adores Obama, as do more than 90% of the other mainstream media shills. They would sacrifice any remaining journalistic principles they have before they would compromise their dear leader with accurate reporting. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

  • JDReign on October 24, 2011 9:54 PM:

    Its funny the right wingers on here didn't bother to even read the article where the author clearly debunks each of these commenters dumb talking points. They just say the tired cliche' the media is protecting him!!!

  • George on October 25, 2011 12:47 AM:

    Yeah, it might be helpful to read the article before yammering about all the "scandals" that the media has "ignored." But then again, reading comprehension is not a right-wing value - just outrage and anger directed outward.

    You could argue this in more ideological/political terms. The reason Obama hasn't had any scandals is simply because he and by extension, his government, are essentially earnest technocrats who believe in "good government," which can also be a pocket description of the Democratic Party at this point in time.

    By contrast, the Republican Party appears to have only two core beliefs - a hostility to government of any sort, and a overwhelming burning desire to gain power and wield it, both to retain said power and reward its friends. In other words, the Party's aims are almost inherently corrupt, and therefore lead to all sorts of moral compromises that have little to do with governing, and which inevitably lead to scandal. Witness the AUSA firings orchestrated by Gonzo/Rove, the hiring of and subsequent incompetence and firing of FEMA head Michael Brown, the Valerie Plame affair, the entire run-up to the Iraq War, the tracing of torture policy all the way to the VP's desk, etc. Almost all of this can be traced to the overriding policy of thinking about how to disenfranchise political enemies and reward friends/donors. And as an inherently corrupt enterprise, its bound to yield scandals, albeit often complex and difficult to capture the imagination of laymen.

    So no, Obama's lack of scandal isn't shocking. In fact, its par for the course.

  • TT on October 25, 2011 8:35 AM:

    Thanks George.
    You summarized the core difference between this government and Bush's perfectly.

  • Warren Getchell on October 25, 2011 10:24 AM:

    "Time To Think About Torture"

    I loved that column Jonathan. How about serving it up again for those that missed it the first time.

  • Frank St. Clair on October 26, 2011 9:46 AM:

    Of course. And Obama has run the most transparent administration ever! And Eric Holder is upholding the law on every front! Rainbows and lollipops for everyone. No companies have been funneled billions of dollars under the guise of being green (except a few) the debt hasn't tripled in three years, and everyone is fully employed. Scandal isn't the issue. Incompetent, corrupt illegal acts are. Can't find any? Then you haven't looked.

  • plebis on October 26, 2011 9:54 AM:

    The author in his pathetic whitewash attempt cherry picks his "proof". From Gunrunner to Obama"care", this little statist socialist has benefited from lies from surrogates, white liberal guilt, and willing suspension of disbelief by much of the media. Chicago style corruption oozes from Obama and his goons.

  • frank marshall davis on October 26, 2011 10:16 AM:

    Thank you Jonathan for elucidating and exposing the opaque transparency,Truth and fulfilled promises of this community organizing executive odorer, blindingly enlightening, like passing the bill b4 knowing whats written in it, ... now lets return to defeat smog luvin republicans drinking their muddy swampwaters and the child killing programs of the violent-mean-dirty-stupid-fanatical tparty clingers.. you do Michelle proud.
    It takes a Village journalist, you really are the W&B deepthroat truther, ,rap on brother rap on...

  • gommygoomy on October 26, 2011 11:31 AM:

    It's always nice to hear from the Grandson of The Communist Party USA Founder, and someone who likens HUSSEIN, to GOD.
    How is it that so many health Care WAIVERS are going to so many Groups who were on the Front Lines of getting this DISASTER passed? Hmmmmmmm?
    And, where in the 14th Amendment, does it say that Laws will be enforced EQUALLY, unless you're one of the President's MAJOR DONORS?
    And, what's up with FAST and FURIOUS, Johnnie? All those DEAD Brown People, in Mexico. MURDERED by Obama and Holder, and their Great Idea of SUPPLYING the Mexican Drug Cartels with High Powered Weapons, for the PURPOSE of having as many Mexican Men, Women, and CHILDREN be MURDERED, so that Obama could use their DEAD BODIES, to advance his GUN CONTROL dreams.
    That's Premeditated MURDER, where I come from, Johnnie.

  • jrobinson on October 26, 2011 11:39 AM:

    I cannot believe the whitewash going on here. First, claiming that there were no scandals is simply flat out a lie. Between the Holder and the Black Panthers, to Solyndra... there have been DOZENS of scandals so far. Some of them impeachment worthy. (War powers in libya, anyone?) Then Alter lists "his ideas" of what a scandal is... and he goes after conspiracy theories - all while conveniently forgetting the 8 years of conspiracy theories from the Left during Bush.

    Then, there's the libs on this page that keep suggesting that Alter "debunked" all the scandals. Debunked? Really? Alter mentions the "policy czar scandal" as something "every administration does". Really? I didn't realize it was common for administrations to create almost A HUNDRED czars to sidestep his whole cabinet.

    The real scandal here isn't even anything Obama did - its the way all of you on the Left and in the Leftwing media cover for him. This article is a complete lying piece of propaganda from top to bottom. You should all be ashamed. Try spelling Obama, B-U-S-H and see if that gets your panties in a bunch.

  • oldentyme on October 27, 2011 7:11 PM:

    Jonathan,
    How refreshing that "American Idealism" is still alive and well! I refer to the Republican voters responses you received about the minor (number?) of scandals during the present administration's attempt at governing.
    I write some of the "stuff" in an (unnamed) political arena filled with well-meaning, but wrong directed,"rightwings" who cannot name the three branches of government. They mean well, maybe, but (according to the clamor) they represent the average-cum-middle-class-er who won't, or cannot read.
    These are the occasional conservative letter writers and T-Party attendees who attempt to say substantive things to help us all get to work, not lose our houses, and educate our children in an education system staffed by underpaid teachers. They constantly quote the conservative talk-dumbs who call the President an African, and procurer of phony birth certificates.
    The beauty of it all is their attempts to do what they (the citizens, not the show-hosts) think is right... at least that's what they argue with me about. I intend nothing facetious... wrong-headedness is an American tradition. So, Mr. President: continue to attempt resolution to the difficulties; just be careful
    that some of my readers (and Jonathan's) don't think that you've changed your Party.

  • Gerry FitzGerald on October 28, 2011 12:52 PM:

    In Jonathan Alter's otherwise insightful article on Washington scandals, he ignores the illegal and unconstitutional Contra part of the Iran-Contra scandal and brushes the entire scandal off (pg 39)as run by a lower-level staff member, Oliver North, "from the White House basement without the president's knowlege". Yet investigations showed that nearly all members of President Reagan's cabinet and staff who dealt with foreign affairs were aware of both aspects of the scandal. And Independent Counsel Walsh, in his final report, concluded that President Reagan himself "directed that the contras be supported, despite a ban on contra aid imposed on him by Congress" (The Boland Amendment).

  • j e madsen on October 29, 2011 9:35 PM:

    Sir - read your "no scandal" column-
    You must be either a White House staffer-
    or your last job was in a "kool-aid" factory
    that gave excessive samples to the hired help.

    Get real, grow up and quit doing propaganda

    jem

  • Azdak on October 30, 2011 3:59 PM:

    I'm only surprised it took 6 comments before the batsh**t crazies came out in force.

    I guess it takes a few more minutes to type with two fingers in a dark room.

  • oliv on November 01, 2011 1:50 AM:

    Every story has an ending. But in life, every ending is a new beginning.your story maybe star from here agelessmeet.§³¨°M.- a
    nice club for y'ounger women and- old'er men, or older women and y'ounger men, to- int'eract with each other. It's worthy a try.

  • Marie Burns on November 14, 2011 1:00 AM:

    Here's a scandal for ya that will appear excerpted in this week's Newsweek from a book by Peter Schweizer titled "Throw Them All Out":

    "A large proportion of the winners [of DOE alternative energy grants] were companies with Obama-campaign connections. Indeed, at least 10 members of Obama�s finance committee and more than a dozen of his campaign bundlers were big winners in getting your money. At the same time, several politicians who supported Obama managed to strike gold.... According to the Department of Energy�s own numbers..., [in one of the programs,] $16.4 billion of the $20.5 billion in loans granted as of Sept. 15 went to companies either run by or primarily owned by Obama financial backers.... The department�s loan and grant programs are run by partisans who were responsible for raising money during the Obama campaign from the same people who later came to seek government loans and grants.... These programs might be the greatest � and most expensive � example of crony capitalism in American history. Tens of billions of dollars went to firms controlled or owned by fundraisers, bundlers, and political allies, many of whom�surprise!�are now raising money for Obama again."

    I'm a long-time Democrat & worked for Obama in 2008. This business-as-usual, even if it is "green graft," is not acceptable. Occupy Washington!

    The Constant Weader at http://www.RealityChex.com

  • Campesino on December 09, 2011 4:11 PM:

    "no scandals" in Obama administration = liberal press decides not to cover them


    Saved you several hundred words of worthless reading

  • Gwen Killerby on December 24, 2011 4:59 PM:

    Solyndra maybe is a scandal, but, as it turns out, Republican'ts started Solyndra, voted for Solyndra and invested monies in Solyndra. So....

    And wow, the batshit crazies aren't gonna mention the birther and the death panel """"""scandals""""""""???
    Some progress, at least.