Trump Scandals vs. Obama Scandals: What the Numbers Show
In the closing days of the Obama administration, the press lauded a presidency they asserted had been largely free of scandal. When the White House itself argued it had escaped major scandal over its eight years, the Washington Post’s fact-checker stayed neutral, declining to refute its claims. In contrast, the word “scandal” has become a common refrain in media descriptions of the Trump presidency. Yet a closer look shows that during Barack Obama’s second term, the media used “scandal” to refer to his administration almost as often as they have the Trump administration.
The timeline below shows the number of times that “scandal” or “scandals” or “scandalous” appeared within 15 seconds of a mention of “Obama” or “Trump” on the combined airtime of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News from July 2009 through September 29, 2019, using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by the GDELT Project.
Click on the chart for a larger image.
Immediately clear is that while Obama’s first term was largely free of scandal references, his second term was defined by a steady stream of them.
In late 2011, Operation Fast & Furious captured headlines, followed in April 2012 by the behavior of Secret Service personnel on an overseas trip. The June 2013 Edward Snowden disclosures led to almost twice as many mentions of scandal as any point in the Trump presidency. The May 2014 breaking of the VA health care story saw more mentions of Obama scandal than all but one month of the Trump presidency.
In all, over the past decade, Obama has been mentioned in the context of scandal a total of 6,520 times on the three news channels, compared with 5,103 times for Trump. Though that comparison includes nearly eight years of Obama’s presidency vs. less than three years for Trump, the numbers make clear that the former’s tenure was not “scandal free.” Comparing the first three years of Obama’s second term to the first three years of Trump’s presidency, Obama received 69% as many scandal mentions as Trump.
Of course, few would argue that Fox News was a fan of the Obama presidency, much as few would argue that CNN and MSNBC have cheered the Trump presidency. Yet, even looking only at coverage on CNN and MSNBC, Obama received 2,500 mentions of scandal over the past decade compared with Trump’s 3,722, giving the 44th president 67% of the mentions Trump earned, while comparing Obama’s second term at this point to Trump’s first term to date, Obama still received almost a third as many scandal mentions on those channels, a reminder that even CNN and MSNBC still framed many of the stories of his administration as “scandals.”
In June 2013, at the peak of Obama-era scandal mentions, a guest on CNN’s Erin Burnett show offered that “we are a very polarized country,” where a portion of the population “will disapprove of President Obama practically unless he comes up with a cure for cancer” while the other portion “will approve of him almost under any circumstances.” The guest conceded that “it’s been a barrage of scandal after scandal, the Baskin-Robbins of scandals … one for each day of the month.” In contrast, another guest dismissed criticisms of Obama, offering that “Republicans have done very well at making issues seem much bigger and more conspiratorial than they are.” Such language could have been ripped almost verbatim from today’s headlines, reminding us that for all of the talk of Trump dividing our nation or the White House’s opponents fixating on conspiracy theories, it seems we are simply witnessing the same storylines regarding political partisanship.
In the end, while in hindsight the press may look back fondly on Obama’s presidency, at the time news outlets were nearly as quick to use the word “scandal” to refer to his administration as they do today with Trump’s.