Ten Miles Square


April 03, 2012 8:34 AM The Obama Administration’s First Scandal: General Services Administration Spending

By Brendan Nyhan

The first Obama scandal has arrived.

Last May, I wrote a column on how the Obama administration had managed to avoid scandal* for longer than we might otherwise expect:

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 attributed Obama’s resilience in part to “the number and magnitude of competing news stories” during his tenure, which I show play a key role in the likelihood and severity of presidential scandal (PDF). (See Jonathan Alter’s Washington Monthly piece for a discussion of other possible explanations.) However, I predicted that the “the likelihood of a presidential or executive branch scandal before the 2012 election are quite high” and that, “[g]iven Obama’s reputation for personal integrity, the controversy will likely concern actions taken within the executive branch.”

Obama survived for longer than I expected since that column was published. Despite close calls with Solyndra and Operation Fast and Furious, Obama broke George W. Bush’s record in October for the longest scandal-free period among presidents in the contemporary era using the measure described above from my research (a front-page Washington Post story focused on a scandal that describes it as such in the reporter’s own voice) — see Elspeth Reeve’s coverage at The Atlantic Wire here and here.

Today, however, my predictions were validated when the Washington Post published a front-page story that twice describes a controversy over alleged excessive spending at a General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas as a “scandal.” In print, the story ran under the headline “GSA rocked by spending scandal” (PDF). While this controversy seems unlikely to have much staying power or to damage Obama politically, its emergence is consistent with the news cycle theory I advance — the improving economy and Mitt Romney’s impending triumph in the Republican presidential nomination race have reduced the newsworthiness of two stories that have dominated the news in recent months, which in turn increases the likelihood that allegations of unethical or improper behavior will receive prominent coverage. The question now is whether the GSA controversy signals the resumption of scandal politics as usual in Washington.

* I define scandal as a widespread elite perception of wrongdoing. My research analyzes the effects of political and media context on when scandals are thought to have occurred, not whether Obama or other presidents actually engaged in misbehavior (a question that cannot easily be measured or quantified objectively).

[Cross-posted at Brendan-Nyhan.com ]

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.


  • WRGerman on April 04, 2012 9:06 AM:


    Nothing to see here. Move along...

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on April 04, 2012 11:05 AM:

    Double yawn.

    One of my first jobs was with conference and events programming for a law school for attorney continuing legal education. Anybody who has ever worked in the events planning industry knows that these things are a racket in the purest since of the word. Catering sub-par food at ridiculous prices and daily ballroom/conference room rentals--especially if an upscale hotel is hosting...

    This situation doesn't even meet the definition of widespread wrongdoing, only because the practice of organizing high-priced events is widespread itself, business as usual even. True this was a government outfit, not some cushy law firm, and they probably spent more than usual, but I seriously doubt any elites will feel scandalized by something that they have definitely participated in at some point in their careers. GSA just happens to be the only administration who have been called on it.

  • JM917 on April 07, 2012 2:21 PM:

    Obama's predicted response to Republican and MSM screams about the GSA "scandal:

    "Yes, as soon as I heard about what happened I ordered the head of the GSA to fire everyone implicated and then to resign herself. And I'll do that every time sh*t like this happens on my watch. Next question?"

  • Dave Schutz on April 07, 2012 2:28 PM:

    "... a widespread elite perception of wrongdoing..."

    So this lets you wriggle out of engaging on Solyndra or Fast & Furious, because only non-elite people think they are scandalous?

  • Neil Bates on April 20, 2012 6:29 PM:

    The GSA scandal is only "Obama's" scandal, AFAICT, because it happened on his watch. Well of course he could be more watchful. Yet that sort of "failure" is nothing compared to the profusion of direct and deliberate misconduct of the sort the author and Obama's critics know, happened in recent years and before.