Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Scandal of the Scandal-Free Administration

The Obama presidency has been notable for many reason, but at least one thing is somewhat unique, and that's the lack of scandal. Most presidencies suffer at least some sort of scandal--however minor--four years in. Up until recently, it seems that the Obama presidency was going to be fine. Right now, however, I'm not sure that's going to be the case.

The first indication was a few months ago with the Solyndra scandal, where the government made a ridiculously bad decision to back a solar energy company. It was supposed to be the flagship endeavor of the "Green Jobs" initiative, but it lots horrendous amounts (at least half a billion) of the government's money. While this was an embarrassment for the administration, it wasn't properly a scandal--just some bad misjudgement on the part of the President. (So far, at least. There is an investigation to see if there were other reasons why the government would favor a specific company with so much money and without proper due diligence, but so far there has been no evidence.)

Then, in the span of a few weeks two new scandals popped up: the GSA accounting scandal and the Secret Service Scandal. The details of both are sketchy since they both happened recently, but it involves a lot of gross misconduct from reasonably high government officials. These pretty much fit the description of an old-school scandal, and both coming out at once is a huge embarrassment for the formerly squeaky-clean administration.

It is, of course, no particular surprise that this is an election year. While it would have made the news a year or two ago, it would have been managed by Obama's team. But now, of course, Congress will hold a hearing and pundits will talk about it for weeks on end and it will become an issue--no matter what, there's no way to pretend it didn't happen.

Now, don't get me wrong--I find "scandals" like this to be a nonfactor when judging a president. It doesn't matter if you are a Democrat or Republican or a newcomer or a seasoned politician, you simply can't control the behavior of every single department of the government. (I generally feel the same way about corporations.) You certainly have checks and balances and audits and performance reviews and everything necessary to remove those who abuse their power, but you're never going to be able to control it all. Unless there was any direct misconduct by the White House will this become important--and even then, there's a certain level of plausible deniability for most of the staff. And, of course, it's all relative; the Clinton administration famously had its administration pilloried (especially in its first two years) with small-scale but constant scandals. (Do you remember Nannygate? The FBI Files Scandal? The $200 Haircut? Hillary's cattle futures? Travel Office scandal? Whitewater? National Cemeteries? There were...a lot more than this.) They may not be important but, of course, as Nixon taught us, even the small things might become big ones. So the media (and politicians) pounce on anything just in case it turns out to be the next Watergate.

There is, of course, a certain sense of duty to this--the media and the public ought to be keeping tabs on their election officials. Do these things often distract from real, actual important government administration? Almost always, yes--it's not worth a month or even a day of Congressional hearings about, say, the GSA; the auditors and regulators are doing all the work, while the congressmen are just making political noise. The media firestorms about some of the more recent scandals are most certainly not worth the time and effort in comparison to truly important issues. And yet to let these scandals go without consequence would be wrong as well--even if those consequences are purely political. Like it or not--and depending on your political persuasion and who the scandal is against--scandal investigations play a legitimate part in civic governance.

Will any of these scandals fundamentally derail the Obama Presidency? Most likely not--in fact, the Solyndra non-scandal is probably a more important issue as a reflection of the government's judgement, even though most likely no laws were broken. The GSA/Secret Service scandals will result in a few firings and some awkwardness for the White House staff. Will these scandals be enough to distract the administration and remove from its campaign toolkit a "clean" presidency? Most definitely yes. And while it's not fair, it's also what every Presidential administration since Washington has had to deal with. It comes with the territory and how one handles it is a legitimate part of assessing a President.

The Pledge: Scandals are almost always stupid wastes of time, but we still need to make sure they don't go unanswered.

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