Last week was a great week for Obama-haters. They’ve been writing and calling me to gloat: Obama’s mired in scandal, they crow. His agenda is stalled. He’s sleazy, tyrannical and incompetent, heading up a corrupt administration – just like we’ve been saying for years. Not so fast.
Last week was a great week for Obama-haters. They’ve been writing and calling me to gloat: Obama’s mired in scandal, they crow. His agenda is stalled. He’s sleazy, tyrannical and incompetent, heading up a corrupt administration – just like we’ve been saying for years.
Not so fast.
Washington loves scandals, and conservatives have been breathlessly announcing Barack Obama’s demise for at least five years. But the public has sided with Obama time and time again, and it’s way too early to assume they are ready to desert him.
There’s room for criticism, and Obama is getting criticized from some unexpected quarters. That’s one of the things that happens in a second presidential term: Freed from having to worry about hurting his re-election bid, Obama’s supporters can speak up about things they don’t like. That includes the excesses of national security agencies in general and the Justice Department’s chilling seizure of phone records of the Associated Press in particular.
Other things happen in second presidential terms. Talented, ambitious people leave the administration, and often are replaced by less talented loyalists. The arrogance of power – which is exclusive to no party or ideology – becomes more entrenched.
Those factors may have something to do with the bone-headed efforts of an IRS office in Cincinnati to crack down on abuses of the 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status by political campaign organizations posing as charities devoted to “social welfare.”
Presidents get isolated in their second terms, leading to mistakes in reading the public mood. The Washington press corps gets restless when they don’t have a presidential campaign to cover. They pursue every hint of scandal, since covering a president’s fall is as exciting as covering his rise.
We’ve been here before. Richard Nixon’s second term gave us Watergate. Ronald Reagan’s second term foundered on the Iran-Contra scandal. Bill Clinton’s second term was dominated by Whitewater, the investigation of which led to Monica Lewinsky. George W. Bush’s second term saw “Plame-Gate,” the long investigation of the leak of a CIA agent’s name to the press.
By those precedents, it’s way too early to guess the impact of the current crop of Obama scandals. Watergate, Iran-Contra and Whitewater stretched through years of Congressional hearings and criminal trials before reaching the president. We haven’t even gotten to the special prosecutor phase.
A legacy-threatening scandal must at least reach the White House. So far, the IRS scandal has been limited to the Cincinnati field office. The AP leak probe has been confined to the Justice Department. Maybe the trail of evidence will lead to the Oval Office, but we’re not there yet.
Legacy scandals reveal the nature of the presidents they tarnish. Watergate revealed Nixon’s paranoia. Iran-Contra revealed Reagan’s deteriorating faculties. The Lewinsky affair revealed Clinton’s personal recklessness.
Page 2 of 2 - The Obama-haters feel vindicated this week because they long ago saw something dark in Barack Obama. But it will take time - not to mention evidence - for the people who voted for him just six months ago to be convinced they made a mistake.
Big scandals also reveal the character of those who prosecute them. Sen. Joe McCarthy’s rabid pursuit of communists in government eventually revealed him to be unstable and irresponsible. Those who pursued Nixon – reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, prosecutor Archibald Cox, Judge John Sirica, Sens. Sam Ervin and Howard Baker – were praised in the end for their doggedness, fairness and integrity. Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr, by contrast, is remembered as over-zealous, his salacious report an example of partisan overkill.
That’s the danger for Republicans. Already, the Benghazi scandal is being narrowed down to Susan Rice’s wrong answers on Sunday talk shows about the motivation of the attack, which were reversed by the administration within days. That’s not much of a cover-up, and the Republicans’ focus on that instead of the serious issue of embassy security could hurt them.
Benghazi increasingly brings to mind not Watergate, but Whitewater: All smoke and no fire, a trivial matter blown way out of proportion in order to cripple a president in his second term.
These bumps in the second-term road will certainly test Obama’s ability to respond to real issues and set his own agenda. They also test Republican leaders. Some, who remember first-hand how Clinton’s impeachment blew up in Newt Gingrich’s face, are already trying to keep the zealots from using what Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-OK, calls “the ‘i’ word.”
Restraining the GOP extremists won’t be easy. There’s blood in the water, and the sharks on the Right were hungry before they got the first taste of scandal.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest, Mass., Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.