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 Benghazi Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
July 4, 2016, 8 p.m.

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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