Why Washington feeding frenzies aren't what they used to be.
Nyhan says that Obama’s extremely low standing among Republicans is a “key risk factor,” but that the second variable, a slow news environment, hasn’t been present. He explains how Bush set the modern record of thirty-four months without a negative scandal story on the front page of the Washington Post—the period between his inauguration in January 2001 and the Valerie Plame scandal in October 2003—because of 9/11 and the Iraq War. Now, thanks to the financial crisis, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Arab Spring, the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the debt ceiling crisis, and the threat of a second recession, Obama has broken Bush’s record.
Writing in May, before the Solyndra affair broke, Nyhan predicted that Obama’s scandal-free streak would not last for much longer. His forecasting model showed that the chances of an Obama scandal would exceed 95 percent by early 2012. Republicans, he says, are shifting to the National Labor Relations Board’s tiff with Boeing (right-wingers charge without evidence that Obama partisans have assembled an “enemies list”), and to allegations that the ATF’s bungled Operation “Fast and Furious” (in which straw purchases to track the flow of guns into Mexico led to some weapons falling into the hands of criminals) might become, as Representative Issa claims, “Obama’s Iran-Contra.”
If Solyndra continues to heat up, it will be partly because it connects so directly to disappointment over Obama’s performance on green jobs in particular and the economy in general. In a way, it’s a story that feeds on the dominant news of the day—and the central jobs theme of the 2012 campaign.
Scandals unrelated to such major themes are unlikely to go anywhere in election years, as I learned firsthand many years ago. When Bill Clinton was running for reelection in 1996, I was a regular visitor to Dick Morris’s suite at the Jefferson Hotel. Morris was then a shadowy figure who almost never talked to the press. (When I interviewed him and his sidekick, Mark Penn, I had no idea that a few weeks later a supermarket tabloid would reveal that Morris was getting his toes sucked in the suite by a prostitute.) At the time, Morris’s client, Clinton, was the subject of daily scandal stories about secret Asian fund-raising. Morris waved off the stories, explaining that only a mammoth scandal like Watergate ever has any actual influence over voters. That’s especially true in a bad economy.
THE ETHICAL-TONE THEORY
A fish rots from the head. But it also navigates from the head. The direction a leader charts sends a message to underlings: You’d better follow. Even if the rest of the country is peeling off, the people who work for a president take their cues from him.
From the start, Obama has sent a message of intolerance not just of corruption but even of controversy within his administration. He shoots first and asks questions later when it comes to firing someone who hasn’t yet been proven to have erred.
In July, Assistant Labor Secretary Raymond Jefferson, a wounded Special Forces vet, was alleged to have steered contracts to friends. He was forced to resign, even though the inspector general of the Department of Labor never referred the matter to the Justice Department. Even less well known was the ouster of a National Endowment for the Arts communications official who reportedly tried to get artists to create pro-Obama works of art. In 2009, the White House forced the resignation of Louis Caldera, the director of the White House Military Office, after a screwup over an Air Force One publicity flight over New York. And of course there was the ousting of Van Jones, a White House adviser on green jobs, over some dubious past statements and untrue charges that he had been a “truther” (someone who believes that the U.S. knew of the 9/11 attacks in advance).
The most regrettable dismissal so far was of Shirley Sherrod over a “scandal” trumped up by Andrew Breitbart. In that case, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, not the White House, was responsible for jumping the gun. (And he acted in part because even the NAACP had believed Breitbart’s maliciously edited tape of Sherrod’s speech on race.) But the tone had been set by the man at the top.
Compare that hair-trigger willingness to toss out officials who are in any way fodder for scandal with Bush’s hesitancy to fire anybody, no matter how scandalous. His Enron-linked Army secretary, Thomas White, was the classic example. Joshua Green, who wrote the definitive piece about White and the Bush administration’s tolerance for corruption, in this magazine (“The Gate-less Community,” July/August 2002), noted that White himself was surprised at how long Bush let him stay in office.
If Obama is so adamantly focused on running a clean administration, it may be because he is familiar with the alternative. His political roots are in Chicago, but he isn’t a product of the Chicago machine, his employment of Bill Daley as his chief of staff notwithstanding. In 2005, he and his wife got the help of soon-to-be-convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko on the purchase of a piece of property adjacent to his house on Chicago’s South Side, but he otherwise steered clear of the lowlifes of Illinois politics. He was never a governor and thus never enmeshed in the “pay to play” system especially endemic to governorships, whereby campaign contributors pony up in not-so-subtle anticipation of state government contracts. (Beyond disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, the most conspicuous current example of sleazy pay to play is Texas Governor Rick Perry.) When Blagojevich went down, Obama noted that people go into politics for two reasons: to make money or to serve the public. It’s a simple and useful distinction; whatever one thinks of his presidency, Obama is clearly in the latter category.
From the beginning of his administration, Obama was determined to set a high ethical standard. Yes, when the economy was on the brink of a depression, he stood behind Treasury designate Tim Geithner even though the man almost certainly chiseled on his taxes. And he granted waivers in a few cases to officials who had been lobbyists (for example, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, a former Raytheon lobbyist and procurement expert). But the relevant part of the revolving door is what happens at the exit. And here Obama signed an executive order preventing everyone serving in his administration from lobbying their former colleagues until the president left office. His vetting process was so over the top (thanks in part to Senate Finance Committee staffers) that it prevented many good people from taking government jobs because of minor infractions. (One White House aide designate had to withdraw her nomination because of a meaningless lien on a piece of property.) But the high bar no doubt also prevented some bad people from slipping through.
It’s a trade-off: Obama got fewer swashbuckling entrepreneurs from outside of Washington who have realworld experience and perhaps a few creative ideas—but he also got fewer sleazeballs.
THE FAMILY-MAN THEORY
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