I was a reporter in D.C. when Bill Clinton was president, and six months or so into his second term The Washington Post ran a huge drawing of the Abraham Lincoln statue looking lazily around the capital and yawning.
Clinton’s presidency had become tedious, the paper was saying. Plus it had more than three years to go. Next!
Little did the bored Lincoln know, but a prosecutor named Ken Starr was already on the trail of a certain White House intern. So much for dull. But Clinton’s second term would become even more bogged down, and, in the end, inconsequential.
You can sense the same thing happening today. President Obama’s second term feels basically over. And he’s got 44 months to go!
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Now I say that as someone who has not seen any evidence, so far, that Obama has done anything wrong, let alone illegal. At worst in these “scandals,” he is guilty of too much message massaging (Benghazi) or of obliviousness to a hyperaggressive bureaucracy (the IRS). If those were high crimes or misdemeanors, every president would have been impeached.
You usually need a crime for a real scandal. Kickbacks, say. Or some provable manipulation of the levers of government for your own illicit ends. If it comes out that Obama ordered the IRS to go after the Tea Party, then game over for him. But so far there isn’t a shred of evidence for this.
That has not stopped Republicans from turning the scandal amp straight to eleven. They’re calling it “the worst Washington scandal since Watergate” — skipping blissfully past torture and bungled wars and even Iran-Contra, which, dated though it is, did end with 14 members of the Reagan administration under criminal indictment, including the defense secretary and the head of the CIA. Now that’s a real scandal.
No matter: Republicans by 4 to 1 ratios say that Benghazi is a bigger scandal than Watergate, Iran-Contra or even that bribery blast from the past, Teapot Dome. Forty-one percent of Republicans called Benghazi “the biggest scandal in American history.”
Of course that one has already been surpassed by the IRS debacle — making it, I guess, “the biggest scandal in world history.” Bigger than Judas taking that bribe to rat out Jesus!
Anyway, I can tell you from years in the Clinton scandal pits that the hyperventilating will have real consequences. D.C. is done, at least for some time. It may not matter whether the stories have legs. Once the scandal machine fires up, the parties’ bases make it nearly impossible to stop.
Plus, the IRS story could weaken Obama. Not because he did anything wrong, necessarily. But because it threatens the whole point of his presidency — which is that government is good. He’s been asking Americans not to view government as some “sinister entity” — and then it goes and does something sinister. That’s not going to make implementing Obamacare any easier.
Other than foreign-policy actions that Obama can take on his own, it’s going to be tough for him to get much done. Sorry, immigration reform or grand budget bargain. If you were ever happening, you’re not now.
What’s odd is how strangely ritualistic are the second-term blues. Bush’s second term was a waste. So was Clinton’s, and Reagan’s, and Nixon’s — all were mired in investigations and scandals. You have to go back to Eisenhower in the 1950s to find an American president whose second term wasn’t somehow overstaying his welcome.
Why do we do this to ourselves? We should take the hint and limit the presidency to one term. Maybe a single six-year term, but still, one term and one term only.
There’d be less time for presidents to get in trouble (they’d have to start in on day one). And, just as importantly, there’d be a little less cause for everyone else to demagogue.
We’ve got 44 months of this to go. Forget yawning. The Lincoln statue may get up and throw itself in the Potomac.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org