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Why second-term scandals are almost inevitable

In the last month, there has been a lot of talk about whether American presidents face a second-term curse. It’s not clear that such a thing exists, but any second-term president is likely to have to deal with some real or apparent scandals. The reason isn’t arrogance, distraction or hubris. It’s a matter of arithmetic.

Whether a president will face an alleged or actual scandal depends on two variables.

The first is whether something inappropriate, or at least apparently so, has happened either at his direction or on his watch.

The second is whether someone has both the incentive and the ability to bring the allegedly inappropriate action to the attention of the public.

With respect to the first variable, a great deal depends on how long a president has been in office. As time passes, the incumbent becomes more likely than his predecessor to be held responsible for bad outcomes.

Even more important, the sheer number of executive-branch decisions increases substantially over time. With every month, it becomes more likely that at least one of those decisions will turn out to be incorrect, inappropriate or worse.

If the president encourages or tolerates misconduct, the likelihood of scandals is high by definition. It will only grow over time.

The same is true even if the president is entirely honorable. Because the executive branch is exceptionally large, no president, however vigilant, can possibly control everything that happens there.

Many thousands of federal officials, working in dozens of different agencies, are in a position to make important decisions, some of which may turn out to be wrong, inappropriate or worse.

True, an honorable and diligent president can significantly reduce the risk of misconduct.

But after a period of four years, a bad or troubling decision is almost inevitable, given the sheer number of choices that will have been made. The real question is whether a troubling decision will turn into an apparent or actual scandal.

Which brings us to the second variable. Having been defeated twice, an opposing party will be angry and frustrated. It will seek to undermine the incumbent president however it can. Investigating real or apparent scandals can be an excellent way to weaken him.

A losing party may see an alleged scandal, or an apparently reasonable claim for an investigation, as a political winner.

If the House and the Senate are both in the hands of the president’s party, the threshold for a serious investigation is obviously far higher than if either is controlled by the opposing party.

The media matters, as well. A honeymoon period is far more likely in the president’s first term than in the second. And if the media are well-disposed toward him, they are far less likely to investigate and publicize apparently troubling decisions than if journalists are skeptical about him.

At the same time, the media are less likely to focus on scandals if they are preoccupied with other matters (such as an economic crisis, a war or other high-profile issues).

In an impressive study, Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College demonstrates the importance of the opposing party and of media incentives. Focusing on the period from 1977 to 2008, Nyhan finds
an unmistakable increase
in scandals in the second term.

Strikingly, he also shows that when the president is held in especially low regard by the opposing party, media attention is far more likely to be given to scandals, real or apparent.

Nyhan demonstrates how significant events (such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the Iraq War in 2003) claim the nation’s attention and tend to deprive real or apparent scandals of oxygen.

Some big news events may also draw the media and the public to the president’s side, further reducing the incentive to focus on other matters.

None of this should suggest that we haven’t seen genuine scandals in recent history. But real ones can be ignored, and made-up ones can get a lot of public attention. While in office, President John F.
Kennedy had an unusually colorful private life. It never turned into a problem because no one was willing to discuss
it publicly (even though
Kennedy had plenty of enemies).

Some alleged or actual executive branch offenses wouldn’t have gotten much attention in the absence of intense hostility, on the part of some, to the incumbent president.

Political predictions are hazardous, but here’s a safe one: However wonderful his character, and whatever his political party, any second-term president will have to deal with a real or apparent scandal (or two, or three). The reason? Arithmetic.

(Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley university professor at Harvard Law School.)

Legacy Comments11

What a joke? Of the 7 post-war presidents, only Clinton and Reagan were more popular in their 2nd terms. Reagan's two terms were marked by serious scandals--the S&L debacle, grant-rigging at HUD, EPA scandals, and most seriously, Iran-Contra. Reagan survived with his popularity intact because the public did not connect those scandals, especially Iran-Contra, with him personally. He had "plausible deniability" (senility?) while underlings like Wm. Casey subverted the Constitution.

more leftist revisionist history

Gibson Guitar scandal and Fast and Furious Gun Running scandal were early 1st term crimes that the lame stream press failed to investigate

"President Obama and his administration are in free fall. The IRS and media scandals are making Richard Nixon look like an amateur in revenge politics by comparison......Fast &Furious, Benghazi, the AP phone taps, and IRS discrimination. What we see as an affront to liberty and freedom the progressives see as success. We are the only thing standing in the way to their socialist utopia”

The NY Times reported yesterday that at least some of the groups being investigated by the IRS were less than forthcoming about the extent of their political activities, and that the IRS was justified in a closer examination of their records. And, as of this writing, there is still NO evidence connecting these investigations to the WH, despite what the right is fervently wishing and hoping.

I keep wondering why the WH didnt stop it when they first learned about it. Of course, when they first learned about it is an evolving story.

Bruce, "no connection to the WH..". This is joke, right? Of course, they planned and executed this assault on the civil liberties who even voice concern over their socialist agenda. hallmark of the left - don't bother debating those natty little facts 0 always attack any who don't agree with school yard level insults and anemic attempts to demean. It was said well on the news recently, "if you are not liberal at age 20 - you have no heart. if you are not a conservative at 50 - you have no brain"

We'll see what happens. At the moment, there is zero evidence for your claim that "they planned and executed this assault on the civil liberties..."

What a joke this is. Poor data in poor data out. Clinton & Reagan were more popular in their 2nd terms, as was Ike. Truman & Johnson had wars, Bush economics. JFK was one of the most beloved Presidents of all time. Protected by the media just like President Obama. Nixon had Watergate. Curse denotes, bad luck and out of one's control. Media is hating the fact they have to report these 3 issues. So they will spin it. "Not My Fault, The Devil Made Me Do It" as the comic Flip Wilson use to say.

What America now sees it the Chicago Thug Politics that propelled the low information voter to give us the worst president ever

I didn't know you voted for Obama.

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