One of the least remarked upon aspects of the Obama presidency has been the lack of scandals. Since Watergate, presidential and executive branch scandal has been an inescapable feature of the American presidency, but the current administration has not yet suffered a major scandal, which I define as a widespread elite perception of wrongdoing. What happened, and what are the odds that the administration’s streak will continue?
Obama has been extremely fortunate: My research (PDF) on presidential scandals shows that few presidents avoid scandal for as long as he has. In the 1977-2008 period, the longest that a president has gone without having a scandal featured in a front-page Washington Post article is 34 months – the period between when President Bush took office in January 2001 and the Valerie Plame scandal in October 2003. Obama has already made it almost as long despite the lack of a comparable event to the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The principal reason he has escaped scandal for so long, I argued, is the congested news cycle - Obama's presidency has been consumed by major exogenous news events (Middle Eastern revolts, the shooting of Rep. Gabriel Giffords, the Deepwater Horizon disaster, etc.) as well as the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Nonetheless, I argued that "the likelihood of a presidential or executive branch scandal before the 2012 election [is] quite high." How has that prediction fared?
Well, there hasn't been a major scandal yet according to the definition I use in my research, but the controversy over the White House's role in providing loans to the failed clean energy company Solyndra shows signs that it could be the first of Obama's term. Elspeth Reeve at Atlantic Wire has written a followup report on whether the President will break George W. Bush's record for the longest scandal-free period in the contemporary era:
Mark it on your calendars: if President Obama has just 20 days to go -- October 6! -- in order to claim the record as the most scandal-free president since 1977. The prior record holder is also his predecessor: George W. Bush, who in the appraisal of Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan, hit the first scandal of his presidency on October 5, 2003, with the Valerie Plame affair. Nyhan's study this past May predicted that Obama was due for a scandal any day and the Solyndra loan matter may just be the issue that attaches the first S-word to Obama. Literally.
The criteria for what amounts to a scandal according to Nyhan is whether a news story on the front page of The Washington Post uses that word "scandal" in the reporter's own voice to describe the president or his administration...
Obama had a close call with the ATF blunder Operation Fast and Furious and other newspapers (as well as The Atlantic Wire) have already used the s-word to describe solar technology company Solyndra. Nyhan is watching The Post closely. "Solyndra definitely could break Obama's scandal-free streak," he says. "I'm keeping an eye on the story, but it hasn't crossed the threshold I use in my research yet -- the only Post print article on Solyndra with the word scandal in it so far is an editorial that says the controversy 'may mutate from an embarrassment to a scandal.'"