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None Dare Call Them Scandals

Obama had a “scandal-free” presidency, liberals say. It’s true — but only because in Washington, scandalous behavior is par for the course.

Then-President Barack Obama leads a March 11, 2011 briefing on the situation in Libya by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, (L) and Chief-of-Staff Bill Daley. Pete Souza / the White House via Getty

A little bit of post-Oval Office shine is natural for most presidents, so perhaps it’s not surprising that at a time when people are even looking fondly back on George Bush’s two disastrous terms, Obama is already getting the rose-tinted treatment. The latest laudatory claim comes from Obama himself, who said in a recent interview that his administration “didn’t have a scandal that embarrassed us.”

This is technically true, given that Obama was talking strictly about the kind of intra-White House drama that spills out onto the pages of the newspapers. But Obama has rolled out this talking point before in different contexts, at one point saying that his was “the first administration in modern history that has not had a major scandal,” a talking point meant to illustrate how he changed Washington. Former members of his administration have done likewise, as have various commentators ranging from David Brooks to Paul Waldman. In fact, they’ve been saying this since at least two years before the end of his presidency.

If you hold a narrow definition of “scandal” that refers only to juicy court gossip, the revelation of embarrassing and tawdry details of someone’s personal life, or dramatic political conspiracies, then this claim passes muster. Obama didn’t pay a porn star to keep quiet about their affair, nor was he investigated for potentially colluding with a foreign government to win an election, all while doing everything possible to further incriminate himself.

No, Obama’s scandals were far more consequential than this. He let banks that had engaged in widespread criminal fraud off the hook and tasked representatives of those same banks with deciding how to staff his administration, all while accepting mountains of money from the banking sector before and after doing so.

He started a war that was not only illegal, but also turned the country being attacked into smoldering anarchy and helped destabilize the entire region.

Obama killed an American citizen without due process, then killed his completely innocent sixteen-year-old son. He bombed a wedding party, a hospital, and killed hundreds more innocent people with drone strikes. He tortured a whistle-blower, spied on journalists, and tried to send a reporter to jail.

He expanded and entrenched a massive, secret architecture of government surveillance, and would have kept it permanently hidden from the public had it not been revealed by a whistle-blower whom he almost certainly would have also tortured and thrown in jail. This is just a sample.

By any measure, all of these things are far bigger “scandals” than the petty backbiting and vulgar disarray we tend to associate with the scandals of the Trump era. (The only possible exceptions seem to be Trump’s series of sexual assaults and, perhaps, “Russia-gate,” though we still don’t actually know what exactly happened in the latter.)

Those who most strongly reject the idea that Obama’s eight years were “scandal-free” are conservatives, who have drawn up their own lists of Obama scandals as a counterpoint. But because the Right doesn’t consider things like corporate capture, illegal wars in the Middle East, the death of foreign civilians, or the shredding of civil liberties particularly objectionable, their lists tend to be populated with the flotsam of drummed-up Obama-era conservative obsessions: Solyndra, Benghazi, the IRS “targeting” of conservatives, Clinton’s emails, Bowe Bergdahl, Obamacare, and so on.

Liberal commentators, meanwhile, have responded by either insisting everything was hunky dory in the Obama years, or issuing airy paeans to Obama’s personal qualities. Referring to Solyndra, the “Fast and Furious” project, and Benghazi, Paul Waldman insisted that Obama “had only piddling little scandelettes.” Stephen Colbert comically juxtaposed the various trumped-up “scandals” of the Obama years — the “latte salute,” the tan suit, his bowing to world leaders — with the serious allegations Trump has faced since coming to office. “With no scandals to castigate him, [Republicans] have done their level best to manufacture them and come up short every time,” wrote one self-described liberal political activist.

To the commentariat’s shame, even right-wing outlets like the Daily Wire, Weekly Standard, and Breitbart have at least mentioned things like government surveillance and due process-free executions.

The Moving-Right Show

So how, despite the copious evidence to the contrary, can pundits like Tom Brokaw and Joe Klein claim that Obama’s presidency was “scandal-free” and had “absolutely no hint of scandal”? Probably because while the Trump scandals are salacious, eye-catching, and somewhat theatrical, Obama’s involved just your run-of-the-mill Washington depravity: foreign civilians incinerated in illegal wars, corporate malfeasance gone unchecked, gross breaches of civil liberties. They don’t register as scandals because in the narrow scope of the Washington consensus adhered to by most of the mainstream press and political elite, they’re not.

It’s also why the biggest scandals of the Trump administration — the botched Puerto Rico relief effort, the assault on the natural world, a cartoonishly plutocratic agenda, and a ramping up of military brutality — tend to get less airtime than details about the president’s sex life, the infighting amongst his hapless cronies, and fantastic tales of Russian espionage.

And this dynamic represents a perfect microcosm of the way conservatives and their media machine managed to shift politics to the right under Obama. It’s a simple formula: the Right attacks with such ferocity and baselessness that liberals, instead of taking Obama to task for betraying his (and their own) supposed political values, simply create a counter-fantasy of a preternaturally good and decent leader incapable of the kind of misdeeds they would normally excoriate if he were a Republican. It’s why Obama and the Democrats were routinely allowed to move to the right on issue after issue with minimal outrage. By contrast, in areas where they did meet resistance, they tended to make concessions.

All of which is to say that until liberals learn to honestly reckon with the flaws and wrongdoings — scandals, you might say — of their standard bearers, they’ll keep failing to see the kinds of policy changes they say they’d like to obtain. Perhaps more importantly, those who shape public discourse should realize that most of what’s considered par for the course in today’s Washington is historically and globally anything but. Nixon’s biggest scandal, after all, wasn’t Watergate; it was his murder of millions of people in Southeast Asia.