Commentary Magazine


Obama Is Counting on a Double Standard

As the Obama administration seems to stagger under the weight of dealing with three scandals at the same time, Republicans who have been frustrated by the president’s seeming golden touch the last four and a half years are obviously gleeful. While not licking their chops at the thought of tearing into the president’s aides about the IRS scandal, the Justice Department’s fishing expedition into the AP’s phone records, or Benghazi, they’re asking a salient question of journalists: What would you do with this material if it was George W. Bush or Dick Cheney who were accused of lying about a terror attack, infringing on the rights of the press, or selectively enforcing the laws to punish political opponents?

The answer is pretty obvious, since the mainstream media did its best to sink Bush under the weight of the blowback from the Iraq war, the fallout from Hurricane Katrina and the financial meltdown, and demonized Cheney to the point where he became a pop culture villain. While liberals will try to argue that Obama’s problems don’t rise to the level of those of Bush, they know that, as John Steele Gordon pointed out earlier today, the accumulation of woes are about to reach critical mass and doom the president to the same kind of dismal second term that virtually all of his predecessors have suffered.

But though anyone who listened to White House spokesman Jay Carney or Attorney General Eric Holder tap dance their way through brutal press conferences today might be forgiven for thinking this presidency is tottering, the administration’s seemingly clueless efforts to deflect blame may be an indication of confidence that this rough patch can be ridden out without serious long-term damage being inflicted on Obama’s ability to govern or his legacy. Though the media is up in arms over these scandals, especially the government’s snooping on the AP, the president seems to think his magic touch with the media hasn’t worn off. Is he right?

It needs to be understood that though conservatives have spent the years since January 2009 acting as if Barack Obama was always on the precipice, he is a uniquely popular president who has always counted on favorable press coverage. Part of this is due to liberal bias in the mainstream press, but it is also a function of the president’s historic status as the first African American in the White House. Republicans have always underestimated his appeal, and though they lament media bias they consistently fail to understand how it made his re-election easier if not inevitable.

Coming into his second term, some of us have wondered whether Obama could escape the same second-term blues that afflicted nearly every other two-term president, and now the accumulation of scandals is answering that question in the negative. The problem is not just that these stories have legs and are serious. It is that once congressional investigations with subpoena power or federal investigations such as the one Holder announced on the IRS scandal begin, there is no telling where it will all end.

Yet the president seems to still be under the impression that his historic status and popularity insulate him against the problems that handicapped the ability of other presidents to govern once they had been re-elected. Listening to him lash out at his opponents about Benghazi or his aides calmly deflecting blame or even fibbing about these issues, it’s hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that he thinks the double standard that allowed him to blame his predecessor for the economy still applies. He also probably thinks Republicans will take as much of a beating for overreaching in their attacks as he gets for the scandals.

But this confidence may be misplaced.

Though most of the press still despises conservatives and likes Obama–or what they think he stands for–scandals are generally an equal-opportunity affair in Washington. While most liberals have operated from the administration’s talking points on Benghazi, the relentless spill alienated working reporters who don’t like being lied to. But the IRS scandal and the AP story are both designed to anger the media and to create a feeding frenzy that not even Obama’s reputation can withstand without injury. The president has always benefited from a double standard that allowed him to escape scrutiny that was given to his predecessor, but even a liberal press can smell blood now.

Republicans who assume today that this marks the moment when Obama becomes a lame duck may be premature. He’s on the ropes, but not down on the canvas yet. But if the president thinks he can fake his way through this siege coasting on his reputation he may be in even deeper trouble than his foes think.

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