Scandals: The Cumulative Effect

Posted on May 16, 2013 by


The Obama Administration is, for the first time, mired in scandal. The IRS problems continue to irritate. Benghazi bubbles. The Department of Justice’s wiretaps rile. The most interesting article, for me, was Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei’s assertion that the DC political culture is turning on Obama as a consequence of these possible misdeeds. As I have noted before, Washington’s political culture is small and compact. Journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, lobbyists, and various and sundry other people populate that culture, along with all of their relationships and resources.

The popular spin, pushed by Allen and Vandehei, is that Obama’s scandals have suddenly turned people against the President or his administration. While this may be true for citizens who seldom ponder politics until it is time to vote, for they now have something to grab their attention, this is unlikely the case for elites. Unless they are particularly weak-kneed, elites know what they know. They have strong opinions, well-defined preferences, and are committed to a host of issues.

Should we believe that, all of a sudden, Democrats are now anti-Obama? That journalists, who have been, shall we say, deferential to the President, are now hostile due to a single, though egregious, DOJ investigation? While this might be the narrative, don’t be fooled by it.

If, and that is a big if, we begin to see long-term fractures in Obama’s support, it will not be because people have re-evaluated their beliefs or even their support for President Obama’s agenda or ideology. If we begin to see shifts, it will be because people–fellow politicians and journalists in particular–have determined it is no longer in their own interest to support him. To put it in simple terms, politicians may finally calculate that the costs of affiliation are now larger than whatever benefits might accrue. Journalists will conclude they will benefit more from criticizing the President than they would from commending him.

So, if DC has turned on Obama, it is a clear-eyed political calculation. This is the cumulative effect that scandals can have. The President becomes damaged goods when those in his orbit look at him differently. They begin to perceive through the lens of costs as opposed to benefits. This is where the sheer number and timing of the scandals is at least as important as their substance or severity.