During the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Obama promised that his administration would be the most open and transparent in American history – in history! Jefferson be damned. He’s repeated that sound bite multiple times, stating that they have instituted rules that, for example, disallow registered lobbyists from working at the White House and make White House visit logs public.
In a memo written by President Obama and sent to all heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, he states “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
Republicans have long bemoaned the hyper-political, not at all transparent Obama Administration. Were their protestations political? Yes, everything in DC is. This critique of Republican criticism is almost nonsensical. But over the last few weeks, Republicans’ fears and concerns have started to be realized.
First, there was new information concerning the September 11th terrorist attack on the US facility in Benghazi. Career Diplomat Gregory Hicks, who was the highest ranking foreign-service officer on the ground after the death of Ambassador Stevens, recounted the events of that night in testimony before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee last week.
Then it was reported last week that “low level officials” at the IRS field office in Cincinnati targeted conservative groups – particularly Tea Party organizations or those with the word “patriot” in their name – for extra scrutiny as they applied for 501(c)(4) status. In the days that followed, it became clear that, at the very least, some officials in Washington, DC office were aware that this was happening and that the White House was made aware of this story weeks ago.
Finally, on Monday, the Associated Press reported that the Justice Department had secretly obtained two months worth of AP reporters’ phone records as part of its ongoing investigation into a leak that detailed a CIA operation in Yemen last year. According to the AP, “In all, the government seized the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012.”
All of these “scandals” are problematic in their own way. While many on the left and in the media don’t believe there’s much of a story with Benghazi, most on the right do, and are passionate about it. According to a recent PPP poll, 45% of respondents think it’s a worse political scandal than Watergate. The IRS story, meanwhile, is one that impacts every American, since every American files their taxes and writes checks to the IRS yearly. And on top of all that, the AP story, which the average voter probably doesn’t care as much about, has the media en masse up in arms decrying the massive government overreach.
None of these stories is as big as Watergate, where national political figures coordinated and then attempted to cover up a criminal act, though it is fitting that these stories coincide with Watergate’s 40th anniversary. But the convergence of all of these stories is enough to create, or in the case of Republicans confirm, a narrative of this President and his White House.
As Alex Burns and John Harris wrote in Politico, “In Obama’s case, the narrative emerging from this tumultuous week goes something like this: None of these messes would have happened under a president less obsessed with politics, less insulated within his own White House and less trusting of government as an institution.” This narrative was further crystallized by the fact that while these scandals were raging in Washington, President Obama spent all day Monday in New York, attending fundraisers for the DNC, DSCC, and DCCC.
Two-term Presidents historically become embroiled in scandal in their second term (Watergate for Nixon, Iran-Contra for Reagan, Monica Lewinsky for Clinton, Iraq/Katrina/Valarie Plame for Bush). Maybe it’s the nature of presidential politics that when you serve for eight years, eventually something scandalous will come out. But for this president, who sought a second term to solidify his legacy as one of the most successful progressive presidents in American history, a second term with zero accomplishments (and let’s face it, that’s what is going to happen) will stain his reputation.
Republicans, particularly those in the House, have been carrying out a concerted strategy to attempt to block the president’s progressive policy proposals since he was elected. These scandals give them the opening they need to continue to block his proposals. They now have the ability to both call into question his leadership and philosophy of government and keep Congress bogged down in hearings and procedural action for months on end.
As Ron Fournier wrote in National Journal, scandals like these are damaging because they impact a president’s “moral authority to lead.” Without that moral authority, President Obama has little hope of passing gun control, a grand fiscal bargain, or climate change legislation in the coming years.
It’s not Watergate, but in this case, it may be the scandalous drip that sinks him.