Ten Miles Square


May 13, 2013 8:44 AM Why Obama Is in Trouble on IRS and Benghazi

By Brendan Nyhan

After a largely scandal-free first term, President Obama appears likely to spend a lot more time mired in the politics of scandal after last week’s Benghazi hearings and Friday’s revelation of alleged political targeting at the IRS.

My research suggests that the structural conditions are strongly favorable for a major media scandal to emerge. First, I found that new scandals are likely to emerge when the president is unpopular among opposition party identifiers. Obama’s approval ratings are quite low among Republicans (10-18% in recent Gallup surveys), which creates pressure on GOP leaders to pursue scandal allegations as well as audience demand for scandal coverage. Along those lines, John Boehner is reportedly “obsessed” with Benghazi and working closely with Darrell Issa, the House committee chair leading the investigation. You can expect even stronger pressure from the GOP base to pursue the IRS investigations given the explosive nature of the allegations and the way that they reinforce previous suspicions about Obama politicizing the federal government.

In addition, I found that media scandals are less likely to emerge as pressure from other news stories increases. Now that the Boston Marathon bombings have faded from the headlines, there are few major stories in the news, especially with gun control and immigration legislation stalled in Congress. The press is therefore likely to devote more resources and airtime/print to covering the IRS and Benghazi stories than they would in a more cluttered news environment.

Finally, Obama is in his second term, which is when scandals are most likely to take place. After several years with no scandals - the longest of any contemporary president - he had two briefly pop up in April of last year: the GSA and Secret Service scandals. But second terms are far more difficult, as this figure from the paper illustrates using predicted probabilities for a hypothetical president with representative covariate values:


Under favorable conditions like these, I argue, the mainstream media and the opposition party are more likely to engage in the “co-production” of a media scandal, which requires the participation of both parties. The opposition party can’t successfully create a media scandal without sustained critical coverage in the press (see: Fast and Furious) and the media can’t create a scandal without political cover from the opposition party (see: Democrats after 9/11). In this case, not only are Republicans up in arms about IRS and Benghazi, but the press is mobilizing as well - Politico already called the IRS case “[a] classic Washington scandal” and National Journal’s Ron Fournier suggested Obama’s credibility is in question. For the White House, things are likely to get worse before they get better.

Relevant research:

-Scandal Potential: How political context and news congestion affect the president’s vulnerability to media scandal

[Cross-posted at Brendan-Nyhan.com]

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


  • Captain Obvious on May 14, 2013 9:19 AM:

    With all due respect, I have to ask, do you get paid for this?

    I mean, seriously, you need mathematical equations to figure this out?

    Just askin'.

  • clarence swinney on May 14, 2013 10:14 AM:

    Joe/Marist poll shows 64% put Jobs ahead of Debt Reduction.
    We know how to reduce the Deficit but not how do we create NEW industries
    and millions of new jobs..The out sourced jobs return? Forget that dream.
    I have read only that spending like 500Billion on infrastructure will
    revive our dormant economy. Debt is important. Fed has kept interest rates low
    but higher rates will come. It is called good news that the 2014 Budget projects the first below 1000B Deficit since 2008. 700B is not good news. Zero billion is good news. We can balance our budget. Congress can do it. A higher “effective” tax on wealth estates and income.
    Public finance campaigns over six months. Ban any gift with a financial value as gift to employees of the Federal government . Overturn Corporation as a person. Expire Bush Tax Cuts.
    Eliminate Obama Payroll Tax Cut. Means Test Social Security and Medicare.
    It was disgusting to hear employees of large hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach
    tell me that wealthy winter residents get S ocial Security checks each month. It is disgusting to know some of my dearest friends get Social Security and Medicare and are multi-millionaires.
    I love them like brothers but their logic turns me off. “We paid for it” logic. Yes! They paid for free cheese Ag gives out at local armory but they will not go get it.. That would be shameful!
    Our National Income is 14,000 Billion. In 2014, the budget projects tax receipts at 3100B.
    That is a 22% Effective Tax Rate. That is why we rank third as Least Taxed in OECD nations.
    Let us build Industry not more Billionaires from gambling in America Derivative Casino.

  • Mariza on May 14, 2013 10:15 AM:

    Benghazi: There is no scandal

    IRS: President Obama has nothing to do with it so he isn't in trouble over it.

    AP: This isn't unprecedented for the Justice Department to do.

    I don't see any of this as that big of a deal.

  • bh on May 14, 2013 10:31 AM:

    Captain Obvious,

    The world is full of "obvious" things that "everyone knows" that aren't actually true. Just look at all the pious "common sense" deficit-babble beloved by our elites.

    And if you're interested in building knowledge long-term, providing solid evidence for the stuff that you (think you) "already know" is essential -- that's how you get to the weirder stuff.

    Besides, this is an intuitive result, but it certainly isn't how scandals are presented by the press. That's why the 'coproduction' angle is important, especially since media inevitably present themselves as neutral, passive conduits for information.

    If someone is able to fortify a sensible point with solid evidence, the proper response is congratulations, not 'duh.' Unless you're actually 15 or something.

  • Rick B on May 14, 2013 1:37 PM:

    I would say that an additional factor is that the Republicans see the route back to power as being through completely shutting down effective government action. This leaves the villagers inside the beltway with nothing they can consider important to do, so they and the media that caters to them are fertile ground in which to gin up a pseudo-scandal.

    This also keeps the media occupied since there are few government initiatives of any significance that are simple enough for the young and generally poorly uneducated reporters to handle (Ask them how government works. They have no clue.)

    The Republicans are happy with it because it distracts from their politically motivated refusal to permit the government to expand employment or assist the Middle Class.

    This is all in addition to the points Brendan Nyhan made above.

  • Fay Y on May 14, 2013 2:50 PM:

    What Mariza said. Plus, the president has always had low numbers with the Republicans and they've constantly launched new "scandals" at him since he firt took office. Everyone else is just waiting for something to stick, which probably wont happen because unless there's actual substance to them no one really cares.. except Republicans and the press, who get to sell their media on the scandal's coattails.

  • Rip on May 14, 2013 7:07 PM:

    Benghazi: Seems to be mostly second guessing and outrage over semantics. The Republicans have been so ham-fisted in trying to make a scandal out of every aspect of this tragedy, while displaying political ADD in a nearly daily change about what most offends them about the situation while getting deep into the weeds over topics like who changed what line in which memo when, that unless there is video of Obama personally firing an RPG into the consulate this will continue to be a tire spinning in the ditch, going nowhere but splattering a lot of mud.

    IRS: Unless someone finds an actual directive from the White House ( not going to happen) asking for the scrutiny of conservative groups, this isn't going anywhere either, and may have the result of people asking why is it overtly political groups routinely qualify for tax-exempt status as non-political organizations anyway.

    AP Phone Records: This has the potential for the biggest stink, as Justice is perceived as being more under the control of the administration than the IRS, and the media itself feels under attack when this sort of thing happens. Though if the administration was paying columnists to champion like the Bush administration admitted to, that wouldn't cause nearly the outrage as an investigation into a national security leak.

  • Rip on May 14, 2013 7:09 PM:

    Sorry should be "paying columnists to champion policies".

  • Lee Carney on May 21, 2013 7:37 PM:

    Did you factor into your research that this current Republican Congress is made up of complete vandals who have no desire whatsoever to participate in governing the country and instead are committed to just wrecking the machinery of government from the inside. I find it hard to beleive you did seeing as we have never seen anything like this before, even the great Clinton penis chase was conducted in a congress that actually did try to pass some legislation, this congress on the other hand has no desire to do anything other than destroy this President. I doubt any of the leaders of the congressional Republicans and certainly none of the Tea Party caucus have sat down with a Policy Wonk or actually worked through a policy framework with critical intellectual riguor at any stage of this term.