A Quick Early-on Handicapping of Obama Administration Scandals: Watch, but Don’t Bet
–Richard E. Vatz
The two most interesting questions regarding presidential administration scandals are: 1. What each says about the political integrity of the president and his administration, and 2. What the likely political costs and historical costs are.
Herein is a quick analysis of the current presidential scandales du jours in descending order of mortality of threat to the Obama Administration:
A. The Benghazi Scandal: I think this is the worst of the controversies and will forever hurt President Obama’s presidential reputation. It does not mean that most historians will concur: as Richard Nixon memorably and with rhetorical astuteness said, “It depends on who writes the history.” There is no evidence counteracting the inference that the Administration wanted to eliminate any public discussion that al-Qaeda terrorism was at the root of the killing of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Libya. Not only is there no explanation of why President Obama attributed the killings to an anti-Muslim tape, but there is not even an attempt to explain why he and his administration did so for weeks following the murders. The Administration’s irresponsible rhetoric reached its apogee when Secretary Hillary Clinton bizarrely and angrily and rhetorically said, “We have 4 dead Americans…what difference does it make? Was it because of a protest or because 4 people were out for a walk?”
This is a false dilemma, of course, as the issue is not whether the Americans were killed by people out for a walk or by protesters, but whether they were killed by terrorists, associated with al Qaeda, who are still at large.
President Obama’s dismissing criticism as a “sideshow” and averring that there is no “there there” is a classic non-substantive response to substantive questions regarding the United States’ irresponsible actions before, during and after the attacks, and his misrepresentation of his rhetorical responses immediately following the attacks will exist forever and not reflect well on him and his presidency, regardless of who writes the history.
B. The I.R.S. Scandal: all of rhetoric (persuasive discourse) begins with selection and ends with spin. Analogously, the I.R.S. was involved in what appears to be criminal anti-democratic selection in scrutinizing conservative groups profoundly disproportionately. This includes, as summarized by USA Today, “put[ting] a hold on all Tea Party applications for non-profit status [and] approving applications from similar liberal groups.” The issue of whether any such groups should get non-profit status is a canard or “sideshow.”
The initial reaction by Democrats has been all over the place, but some particularly responsible – and politically astute – responses have come from the president, who showed with some, but perhaps not completely sufficient, anger his contempt for the use of federal agencies for political purposes, calling it “intolerable and inexcusable.”
The potential for political consequences will lie in a variation of Howard Baker’s tried-and-true Watergate line, “What did who know; when did they know it; and what did they do about it.”
The estimate here is that this will not much hurt the president, but will not go away. The Attorney General will – and I am not sure here – have to resign but claim it is due to his “pursuing other interests.”
C. The Associated Press Scandal: the Administration has proudly owned up to secretly examining the A.P.’s records for months. The A.P. has condemned the actions, calling them a “massive and unprecedented intrusion.” Attorney General Eric Holder says that the Justice Department was protecting the American people against a security threat: as CBS News puts it, revealing information concerning “a Saudi double agent who had infiltrated al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
The excellent CBS correspondent John Miller, with an extensive background in intelligence work, says that the British, obviously America’s preeminent ally, complained bitterly about the breach of national and international security.
The A.P. has complained that the actions by the Justice Department violated their (A.P.’s) rights, and that it constituted the “plunder[ing] of two months of news-gathering materials to seek information that might interest them.”
The estimate here is that this “scandal”will, unlike the first two, peter out, and Americans will, correctly or incorrectly, see this as almost an inside fight between the government and an unsympathetic press, with far fewer consequences to our Constitutional rights. The concern for security will trump concern for the Associated Press.
Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University and is author of the book, The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Second Edition), Kendall Hunt, 2012, 2013