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Nearing the Exit, Obama Escapes Defining Scandal

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Pete Souza/White House

House Re­pub­lic­ans’ long-awaited re­port on Benghazi re­veals why it was a clas­sic Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion scan­dal.

The 800-page re­port al­leges nu­mer­ous fail­ures that, to­geth­er, fatally com­prom­ised the se­cur­ity of Amer­ic­ans in Benghazi and pre­ven­ted their res­cue in the 2012 at­tack. But the House GOP’s latest Benghazi probe, which stretched more than two years, again failed to sub­stan­ti­ate al­leg­a­tions of a “stand down” in forces, or re­veal clear mal­feas­ance by Hil­lary Clin­ton in re­la­tion to the at­tacks.

If this sounds fa­mil­i­ar, that’s be­cause it is.

On more than one top­ic, probes of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion have de­tailed policy and per­son­nel fail­ures, yet haven’t found the kind of high-level mis­con­duct or stark cor­rup­tion that can shape a pres­id­ent’s leg­acy.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has cer­tainly suffered its share of screw-ups, but the bar is pretty high for scan­dal in the mod­ern pres­id­ency. None of the vari­ous scan­dals in his ad­min­is­tra­tion have be­come the kind of al­batross at­tached to some of his pre­de­cessors.

Con­sider the way that “Ir­an Con­tra” is forever linked to the Re­agan years, or how Bill Clin­ton will nev­er es­cape Mon­ica Lew­in­sky, or how botched in­tel­li­gence on Ir­aq will forever be as­so­ci­ated with George W. Bush.

“Obama has had none of these that re­gister on the level that we had for Bill Clin­ton or for Ron­ald Re­agan or even for George W. Bush,” said Brandon Rot­ting­haus, a Uni­versity of Hou­s­ton polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or who stud­ies polit­ic­al scan­dals.

Tom Dav­is, the former Re­pub­lic­an law­maker who once headed the Over­sight Com­mit­tee, agrees, not­ing that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has come off “re­l­at­ively well” com­pared to some pri­or ad­min­is­tra­tions.

Dav­is, to be sure, also has kind words for Rep. Trey Gowdy’s stew­ard­ship of the Benghazi in­vest­ig­a­tion, and he says that more broadly, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion dam­aged it­self with the way it re­spon­ded to con­gres­sion­al probes. (The re­spons­ive­ness, or lack there­of, to doc­u­ment de­mands has been a shared com­plaint among the lead­ers of GOP probes.)

But he says that Benghazi, and Fast and Furi­ous—the high-pro­file first term scan­dal over a botched Justice De­part­ment anti-gun-traf­fick­ing pro­gram—were about fail­ures of policy.

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion made some of this harder on them­selves, but there’s no smoking guns here,” said Dav­is, who did not seek reelec­tion in 2008.

Else­where, con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans have spent years prob­ing the IRS over the way the agency chose to scru­tin­ize cer­tain con­ser­vat­ive groups seek­ing tax-ex­empt status. But no crim­in­al charges were filed.

The Justice De­part­ment said last year that it found plenty of evid­ence of mis­man­age­ment and bad judg­ment, but ad­ded that “poor man­age­ment is not a crime” and that there was no evid­ence that any of­fi­cial “ac­ted based on polit­ic­al dis­crim­in­at­ory, cor­rupt, or oth­er in­ap­pro­pri­ate motives that would sup­port a crim­in­al pro­sec­u­tion.”

Some House Re­pub­lic­ans—though not the party lead­er­ship—are still up­set enough over the is­sue that they are push­ing to im­peach the cur­rent IRS com­mis­sion­er, who was not in power when the im­prop­er scru­tiny of ap­plic­a­tions al­legedly took place.

Over­all, Rot­ting­haus also says the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has had re­l­at­ively few scan­dals com­pared to oth­er two-term pres­id­ents. He be­lieves there are sev­er­al reas­ons why, such as Obama’s “no drama” man­tra tak­ing root in the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Also work­ing in Obama’s fa­vor: The scan­dal around Hil­lary Clin­ton’s private email sys­tem has been swirl­ing around Clin­ton’s pres­id­en­tial run more than the White House it­self.

Obama has be­nefited as well from the Demo­crat­ic Party’s re­l­at­ive co­he­sion, Rot­ting­haus ar­gues.

“When you see frag­ment­a­tion of a co­ali­tion or you see ma­jor di­ver­gences ideo­lo­gic­ally, that tends to cre­ate some prob­lems be­cause there are people with­in your own party who might turn on you,” he said.

To some ex­tent, Obama be­ne­fits from Re­pub­lic­ans mak­ing power­ful al­leg­a­tions that have not ul­ti­mately been backed up by evid­ence, even when probes do re­veal less-dra­mat­ic in­stances of bad de­cisions and poor con­duct.

Kurt Bar­della, who served as an aide to GOP Rep. Dar­rell Issa when the Cali­for­nia Re­pub­lic­an chaired the Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee, ar­gues that the vari­ous con­gres­sion­al probes of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion have been handled pro­fes­sion­ally.

But Bar­della, who is now pres­id­ent of the com­mu­nic­a­tions firm En­deavor Strategies, says the rhet­or­ic against the ad­min­is­tra­tion wasn’t al­ways help­ful.

“One of the real self-in­flic­ted wounds for Re­pub­lic­ans was ex­pect­a­tion man­age­ment,” Bar­della said. “If at the start of all of these probes, the rhet­or­ic had been, ‘Let’s see if there’s a there there; there cer­tainly are ques­tions worth an­swer­ing’—if they had just stuck to that, ex­pect­a­tions would not have been set [such] that un­less you get a sec­ret­ary to resign, this was a waste of time and tax­pay­ers dol­lars.”

Still, the scan­dals and con­tro­ver­sies of the Obama years have had real ef­fects.

After Ed­ward Snowden re­vealed post-9-11 mass-sur­veil­lance pro­grams that con­tin­ued un­der Obama, Con­gress passed and Obama signed le­gis­la­tion that scaled back the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s phone-re­cords-col­lec­tion pro­gram.

And the name “Solyn­dra” be­came well-known be­gin­ning in 2011. That’s when Re­pub­lic­ans began ag­gress­ively prob­ing the col­lapse of the sol­ar-pan­el man­u­fac­turer that had re­ceived more than $500 mil­lion in loans as part of ad­min­is­tra­tion ef­forts to ex­pand green en­ergy.

The GOP in­vest­ig­a­tion and in­tern­al in­quir­ies showed sev­er­al prob­lems and re­vealed em­bar­rass­ing in­form­a­tion, such as em­phas­is on the op­tics of the pro­gram, an al­legedly rushed En­ergy De­part­ment con­sulta­tion with the Treas­ury De­part­ment, and missed sig­nals about the vi­ab­il­ity of the Cali­for­nia com­pany.

The in­vest­ig­a­tion did not back up re­peated GOP claims that the Solyn­dra loan was an act of polit­ic­al fa­vor­it­ism for one of Obama’s fun­draisers who was in­ves­ted in the com­pany through his found­a­tion.

Non­ethe­less, the at­tacks over Solyn­dra and the green-en­ergy-loan pro­gram more broadly—which was au­thor­ized in 2005 but only im­ple­men­ted un­der Obama—did have a real-world im­pact, hob­bling the DOE loan pro­gram that has been by and large a suc­cess.

“No loans were made for sev­er­al years after the ini­tial polit­ic­al up­roar, des­pite the fact that re­new­ables were grow­ing faster than any oth­er part of the en­ergy sec­tor, new tech­no­lo­gies were com­ing on­line that could have driv­en costs down fur­ther, faster, and oth­er coun­tries were vy­ing for lead­er­ship in this crit­ic­al area,” said Jonath­an Sil­ver, the former head of the DOE loan pro­gram, in an email.

“In ad­di­tion, al­though there are still many tal­en­ted pro­fes­sion­als there, the DOE loan pro­gram, which was the largest and, ar­gu­ably, the best pro­ject-fin­ance bank in the coun­try, lost a num­ber of the em­ploy­ees that made the ef­fort such a suc­cess,” Sil­ver said.

There’s still time for a scan­dal to emerge that changes the tra­ject­ory of Obama’s leg­acy. But for now, it’s look­ing in­creas­ingly likely that Obama will exit without en­dur­ing a scan­dal that defines him in the eyes of the pub­lic and his­tor­i­ans.

“In some circles, cer­tainly Fast and Furi­ous and Benghazi and the IRS tar­get­ing of con­ser­vat­ives—there are those who would say that those are mean­ing­ful and sig­ni­fic­ant and cer­tainly have had an im­pact,” Bar­della said.

“But 10, 15 years from now, are we go­ing to look back and think of the Obama pres­id­ency as any of those things? No, we are not.”

National Journal

Ben Geman is a National Journal Energy and Environment Correspondent, and has nearly a decade of experience on the beat. Before joining National Journal he spent four years as an energy correspondent for The Hill, where he helped launch the paper's energy blog. From 2004-2009, Ben was a reporter for Environment & Energy Publishing, writing for Greenwire and other E&E newsletters. Ben also worked at the newsletter Inside EPA, and before moving to Washington, D.C. in 2002 he wrote for several Boston-area newspapers, including the Boston Phoenix.

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