Will Obama be Damaged by New Administrative Scandals?

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Recent scandals will likely reinforce existing predispositions more than move the political needle.

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No administration wants scandal – especially with the congressional hearings and media firestorms that they bring. So this week is definitely not a good one for the Obama Administration, with news coverage of both the GSA’s excessive Las Vegas conference expenses and the alleged dalliances of Secret Service agents in Colombia. If nothing else, scandals like these detract from the administration’s own message.

Yet beyond the distraction, these scandals hardly seem likely to move the political needle very much, if at all. True, both Democrats and Republicans will deplore wasteful spending by GSA employees and security risks by Secret Service agents. But those already supportive of President Obama will likely see these scandals as relatively isolated cases of renegade government employees, the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule. For administration supporters, government is still a great force for good in society, and the nation needs a president who is willing to defend government from those who they think would dismantle and destroy it.

On the other hand, President Obama’s detractors will see the current scandals as gross abuses taking place under his watch, a further sign of what they perceive as the president’s aloofness and ineptitude as Manager-in-Chief. For the president’s detractors, the current scandals only reinforce their belief that governmental waste, fraud, and abuse remain rampant. It only makes it clearer to them that America needs a Mr. Fix-it to come in and clean house.

In these ways, unless some facts were to emerge that implicate officials at the highest political levels, the current scandals seem likely only to reinforce preexisting opinions. In other words, how much blame voters place on President Obama will ultimately depend on how blameworthy they are already predisposed to think the president is.

This essay recently appeared The Arena section of Politico.

Cary Coglianese

Cary Coglianese is the Edward B. Shils Professor of Law, Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Penn Program on Regulation at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He is the founder of and faculty advisor to The Regulatory Review.

The image of the Las Vegas strip is by Flickr user James Marvin Phelps, and used under a Creative Commons license.