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Will Obama’s Scandals Change Attitudes Toward Government?

According to many Republicans, Barack Obama has been scandal-plagued since sometime shortly after his inaugural parade. But only within the past few days have national political media begun to adopt the same view, as a cluster of controversies—over Benghazi, the IRS’s targeting of conservative activist groups, and the Department of Justice’s secret seizure of Associated Press phone records—emerged in quick succession, prompting journalists to announce that a watershed moment for the Obama presidency was at hand. “What we are witnessing is nothing less than a dramatic reversal of the nation’s political narrative,” declared Roll Call‘s Stu Rothenberg, who wondered whether all this augured a “game changer for 2014.” Continuing the theme, Politico theorized that these scandals will expose the limits of “a growing and activist government” and consequently “bolster the conservative worldview.”

Of the three controversies, Benghazi is most purely a product of the contemporary “conservative worldview”—Republicans have been promoting the story for eight months, fueled by a barrage of fury on Fox News and right-wing internet outfits. But the outrage has had virtually nothing to do with discontent over “a growing and activist government.” Instead, what seems to animate it is continued suspicion that the Obama administration deliberately lied about the nature of the attack to avoid suffering a potential setback in the heat of a presidential campaign. Last week’s hearing did lend a degree of credence to the theory—progressives are now less inclined to casually dismiss concerns that the post-attack talking points were manipulated—but regardless, recent developments had no bearing on the desirability of “a growing and activist government.” With very few exceptions, Republicans have not used the Benghazi saga as an opportunity to challenge the underlying logic of the Libya incursion, though a considerable swath of voters could be receptive to such a challenge, including disaffected Democratic-leaning folks who object to Obama’s interventionism and militarism.

In the case of the IRS “scandal,” when the news broke, Obama swiftly denounced the agency’s conduct as “outrageous,” and Democrats vowed to fully investigate. Assuming there is no further conspiracy, this issue may harm Obama in the short-term but seems unlikely to effect a broad-based shift in attitudes toward government power other than to intensify feelings among conservatives who already detest the president and the IRS. As the “Tea Party” brand remains extremely unpopular, progressives and independents will generate little sympathy for the self-described “Tea Party” and “Patriot” groups that were targeted.

By stark contrast, Monday’s revelation that the Justice Department seized two months’ worth of phone records from the Associated Press is a veritable “game-changer”—a full-blown scandal in every sense of the word. DOJ officials obtained these highly sensitive records in secret, preventing the AP from seeking judicial review; sources for as many as 100 reporters may have been compromised. Pulitzer Prize winners Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, whose investigative journalism has been indispensable, were among the targets.

The gravity of this “massive and unprecedented intrusion,” as the AP described it, cannot be overstated. Attorney General Eric Holder has claimed that his department carried out the action pursuant to a criminal investigation into a national-security leak that “put the American people at risk,” creating a situation that “required aggressive action” to remedy.

A substantial set of Americans, young people especially, has grown deeply cynical of state officials’ rote invocation of ill-defined “threats” to justify abridging core civil liberties. Ironically, this scandal is by far the most compelling example of what “a growing and activist government” might wreak—yet it also appears to be the scandal in which the GOP has the least interest. It most threatens Obama precisely because it is not tainted by partisan grandstanding. It is a scandal on its face and required no trumpeting from congressional zealots in order to enter the mainstream discourse.

But since the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans have demonstrated a remarkable inability to capitalize on Obama’s many vulnerabilities. Notwithstanding pumped-up “narratives” about the administration’s imminent downfall, there is little reason to expect much will change.

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