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Obama Is Particularly Vulnerable to These Scandals

Obama Is Particularly Vulnerable to These Scandals

By J.T. Young - May 25, 2013

Scandal is the worst thing that can befall a president. Yet as debilitating as scandals always are, the ones Obama now faces are particularly so. They intimately and simultaneously strike at his public persona, which has been his strongest asset, while seemingly verifying his critics' worst accusations.

Scandals leave a president weaker for four reasons. First, they are decidedly negative issues. No president, or politician for that matter, seeks out negative issues. All go after the overwhelmingly popular, which is why politicians so quickly and frequently embrace symbolic ones.

When pressed, a president takes on "tough" substantive issues, which are "tough" precisely because they alienate large numbers of voters. Balancing the budget is not hard in itself - it is hard because doing so requires cutting spending or raising taxes. However, even with tough substantive issues, roughly half the electorate often supports a president.

Not so with scandals. Scandals alienate all but your most fervent supporters, and in some cases, even them. They are political no-win situations.

Second, presidential scandals are concentrated. Because Congress is diffused over many, its scandals can bring down an individual, but leave the institution just momentarily tarnished. The institution and the individual are separate. Ultimately, “the presidency” is one person.

Third, the presidency's one person is the Commander in Chief. His constitutional role is to be in charge - i.e., responsible. Even if the president himself did not instigate the scandal, he, as Commander in Chief, is ultimately responsible.

Finally, America harbors presidential over-expectations. Any dent to his responsibility undermines the faith the public has in him to deliver on their unrealistic demands for government in general, and for presidents in particular. The quaint notion that government's responsibility is to defend the borders and deliver the mail passed long ago. Americans now expect everything – from the economy to the environment - and not just the nation's, but their own.

If the president perpetrated a scandal, or even simply failed to prevent one in his Administration, then how can we feel secure in him handling all the important things for which we hold him responsible?

In short, scandals are bad for any politician, but especially so for presidents. In fact, today's scandals could be especially bad for this president.

For one thing, Obama does not have one scandal, he has four. The Administration seems a veritable ice cream parlor of intrigue - a sundae of scandals being served up a scoop at a time. He has the terrorist attack in Benghazi, the IRS targeting of conservative groups, HHS' soliciting of private health care to implement Obamacare, and DOJ's “investigation” of reporters.

No single story can generate new details to fill today's voracious media appetite. As a result, every lull offers opportunity for a new story to replace a conventional scandal. Yet here, each scandal fills the lull in the other's narrative. There is no collective end, just a relay race of negative coverage.

They not only reinforce each other's negative tone, they make the others seem more believable. If that could happen there, then why can't this have happened here?

They also directly undermine Obama's outsider image. He promised “Change We Can Believe In,” yet these scandals smack of being all too Washington. They are anything but change, or worse: That what has changed has been the Administration itself.

Obama's image has been his strongest asset. Every presidency mixes symbolism and substance. On substance, Obama's has been at best mixed. For coming on five years, the economy has been below average, and the federal budget historically bad. His biggest accomplishment has been Obamacare, which daily seems less popular.

But on symbolism, he has excelled. So many wanted him to succeed, even as they wished his policies would not. As polls have consistently showed, he has always been far more liked than supported.

These scandals go right at this greatest strength.

Yet because his greatest strength has been personal, it never translated to commensurate political strength. His approval/disapproval rating was essentially split going into the scandals. Nor was it broad-based, but concentrated in liberals plus enough moderates. It is easy to see the balance now negatively tilting and his support being even more concentrated.

To make matters worse, the scandals are almost tailored to match his opponents' narratives: weak on defense; political profiling; Chicago shakedowns, and abuse of power.

Before the scandals broke, it seemed Washington was in a lull before its next fiscal fight. Now instead of getting a breather, the Administration finds itself struggling to catch its breath. The tough fights it was facing, are still there - just delayed and the White House diminished going into them.

Scandals are trials presidents cannot win. They can only hope to minimize the damage.

Obama is especially vulnerable to scandals and especially these he now confronts and which so closely fit his critics' version of his presidency. While these scandals are trials he cannot expect to win, they are ones he cannot, even less than most, afford to lose. 

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.

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