July 22, 2013

Is scandal fatigue going to help the president?

NOTE: I recently started a new job and have had a lot of my time eaten up with learning curve stuff, so I haven't been posting much and will probably be a bit slower than  for the next few days at least.
With the flurry of scandals that have haunted the president over the spring seemingly destined to fade over the summer what impact are they likely to have going forward?  I don't possess a crystal ball but I am familiar with game theory.
If we plot two axes with magnitude of the scandal impacts on the vertical axis and the immediacy on the horizontal axis (sorry for the lack of accompanying artwork), we can more readily think about potential outcomes.  On the magnitude axis we could have a small (e.g. no presidential wrongdoing/involvement, many of the scandals quietly being compartmentalized and/or just fading away or a compliant press covering up the magnitude of the wrongdoing) or large scandal impact.  On the immediacy axis we can have the scandal(s) blowing up right now or we can have them blowing up and creating fallout right before the 2014 midterms or before the 2016 presidential election.
That creates 4 quadrants of possibilities:
  1. Small scandal impacts pre-midterm
  2. Small scandal impacts post -midterm
  3. Large scandal impacts pre-midterm
  4. Large scandal impacts post-midterm
The questions are what impact does this have on the second term of Obama and the chances of a Hillary Clinton win in 2016.
In scenario 1, the scandals all turn out to be small, isolated issues (e.g. IRS only targeted a few groups, the Benghazi scandal fizzles out, and the NSA spying turns out to be something the public is okay with) that the press helps downplay.  The scandals unfold or disappear within the next 12 months.  The scandal fatigue factor kicks in and people begin to focus their concerns elsewhere.  This not only helps Obama from having his approval ratings continue to crater, but also certainly does nothing to harm Hillary's chances in 2016 - particularly if the Benghazi scandal doesn't go anywhere.  In fact such a short-term fizzle might actually invigorate the president's supporters and help him and the Democrats gains some seats in Congress in 2014.  They would be hard pressed however to have it support any success in the senate races.  The Democrats were on defense to begin with on those races anyway.  The president, may actually see a boost in his popularity ratings, as he moves to portray the scandals as just another GOP witch hunt meant to destroy his popularity rather than them trying to sit down and talk about his ideas.
For that reason this is the worst possible scenario for conservatives and those who have serious issues with the president's agenda. 
In scenario 2, not  much changes from scenario one.  For the president it may mean that there is a shorter window for him to recover his reputation (perceived by himself as one of greatness no doubt).  He may become very aggressive over the last two years of his presidency in trying to advocate programs or changes towards a more progressive liberal America.   While it might help Democrats in Congress to not have this finalized before the midterm elections, the president may actually play a role in speeding up the summary conclusions to happen before the midterms in order to give himself more runway to get things done.  The longer the president has to wait, the more of a lame duck he becomes.  Each passing day is one more day he can no longer be president. For Hillary Clinton, having this play out closer to the election of 2016 wouldn't matter.  A clean Benghazi story probably helps her as much close to the 2016 election as it does happening pre 2014.  As long as she gets away unscathed, it doesn't matter when.  If she chose to use her 'innocence' as a badge, having the scandal dissolve in 2016 could potentially actually help her.
This seems like a more likely scenario.  After all, commissions are involved, investigations have to be done.  These things take time.  Investigators see job security in doing the most work, and being as meticulous as possible.  The public meanwhile is more likely to get if not scandal fatigue, at least scandal apathy as time passes.
In both scenario 3 and scenario 4, there will be damage.  The damage to Hillary if the Benghazi issue turns out to be a major failure and/or cover up may be insurmountable.  But from her perspective, it would be better to have the large scandal happen sooner and let time heal the wounds.  Here she differs from president Obama and the Democrats in Congress and the Senate who would prefer this happens much later.  Major scandals will not only result in people losing jobs or seats, it could result in criminal charges, and perhaps even a total derailment of Obama's presidency.  The president of course would love to see all of the impacts, even if he is personally unscathed, not add to what has become a lame duck term.  AS large scale set of scandals means his agenda gets dumped by the public who still favor it (at least as far as it is attached to him) and worse still, Democrats in Congress might start jumping ship on other items they may have previously supported such as Obamacare.  With Obamacare gone, is Dodd Frank then Obama's legacy?  Unlike scenario 1 versus scenario 2, if the damage is significant, you'd expect to see the president pushing to stall the outcome as much as possible.  If nothing else, he could still bitterly cling to Obamacare as a signature achievement even if damage is done to everything else later on.  Obamacare will be too far along by 2016 (probably maybe) to derail.
We might see Hillary and Obama at odds as well.  If the Benghazi scandal quietly disappears but the rest stick around to blow up, Hillary might prefer to see the rest of the scandals blow up now.  Happening pre-2016 election does nothing to help her win the presidency and probably harms her.  We could see some interesting divergences of opinions and infighting if that scenario plays out.
Of course there is always the possibility that everyone will attempt to delay and stall right through 2016.  If the impact is large then they may all agree to try to hold out as long as they can.  With a compliant media, they have that option.  But I don't see the damage being small or else this supposedly transparent administration would actually be calling for inquiries and openness in dealing with these problems.  They could argue that they were failures of the system and not of leadership.  But since we don't see them doing that, it's fair to assume that the damage could be significant, and personal.
The lesson, is to not let scandal fatigue take hold and the dismay and anger the public has felt over all of these scandals, give way to apathy.  But we knew that all along.  We just need to see which scenario ends up playing out as to how the scandals are resolved.

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