Nearing the Exit, Obama Escapes Defining Scandal
From Benghazi to Fast and Furious to Solyndra, GOP probes have found mistakes and mismanagement, but not legacy-shaping misconduct or corruption.
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.”
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