Obama at a pre-election rally in 2012
c Tyler Driscoll

USA: Scandals and the Obama Administration

Legacy: the buzzword for all incumbents of the oval office fortunate enough to have won a second term. On that clear night in Chicago’s Grant Park in 2008, any brief thought of the president-elect’s legacy was undoubtedly clouded out by grand plans of how to shape U.S public policy, restart the ailing economy and transform America’s tarnished global image.

How time flies. Whilst his first four years were hardly unblemished, there were clear legislative achievements – most notably, the Patient Protection and Affordable care act that brought health insurance to 20 million previously uninsured Americans, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that arguably prevented the U.S from entering into depression.

Barack Obama’s second term agenda however, is being besieged by a plethora of scandals, putting the president on the defensive and confining him to acting as a reactive chief executive with dwindling political capital. It is difficult to identify which of these current scandals may harm Obama’s legacy most. The Benghazi embassy debacle and the IRS scandal have enraged tea party firebrands and GOP libertarians on the right of the political spectrum who have consistently argued that Barack Obama’s radical agenda will do irreversible damage to American society.

Those on the left have become increasingly frustrated with their liberal standard bearer – Guantanamo Bay remains open and the President has failed in his attempts to push through minor gun control legislation during a period in which Gallup polling routinely found that around  65 percent of American favoured tighter background checks. Whilst Whistle-blower, Edward Snowdon’s dramatic NSA leak last week has ignited debate amongst security experts, it is uniting ordinary Americans from across the political spectrum, which will once again harm the credibility of the President.

Government surveillance of its citizens strikes at the heart of Americans of all political persuasions. In the worst cases, it manifests itself as an invasion of privacy, in a nation whose libertarian values are enshrined in a codified constitution that defines what it is to be an American. It is in the DNA of Americans to fear ‘big government’ to be constantly wary that federal state might encroach on their sacrilegious freedom and liberty. And in this instance, their worst fears are being recognised

Snowden’s extraordinary revelations on the extent of the National Security Agency’s scope and surveillance techniques have re-opened the debate on the balance between liberty and security that all nations combating terrorism must deal with. For a divisive President who won a second term based upon the weaknesses of his opponent rather than his own strengths – latest opinion polls show that the this latest scandal will do nothing to improve his support amongst the general public.

In a recent CBS News poll, only 38% of Americans approved of phone record collection in order to reduce the chance of a terrorist attack. A Gallup poll conducted around the same time was consistent with this, showing only 37% approved monitoring of Americans’ phone and internet use. The debate will unquestionably continue, on cable news channels, amongst the political classes and in households across America.

The Obama administration needs to respond to this latest scandal swiftly and decisively if the President is to regain credibility that will enable him to establish own second term political agenda and not be seen as a President constantly lurching from scandal to scandal.

In this instance, the administration faces an unenviable job: assure Congress that they are being honest with the public about government surveillance programs, while ensuring that U.S national security is not jeopardised in the process. Whilst it would be premature to assume that the administration’s response will define his second term, a poorly coordinated, ineffective explanation to the American people and to Congress could be very damaging to his future domestic agenda.

Obama has so far shown little signs of possessing any Clinton-esque traits – striking bargains with a hostile House of Representatives and out manoeuvring his Republican foes. It is alleged that more left wing Democrats were invited for a beer with George W. Bush than any Republican has been during the Obama years. His second term wish list will undoubtedly include another chance at tightening gun control laws. He will wish to cement a strong foreign policy legacy that may not be defined by his withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, but by his actions concerning the conflict in Syria, and the Immigration Reform Bill that is currently making its way through Congress will, if passed, perhaps be the kickstart that his second term requires.

For all of Obama’s qualities, however, his administration’s responses to breaking stories and issues have lacked the nous and political prowess that the situation has demanded. There was another example from Monday, when Obama had a telephone conversation with Egypt’s then-president Mohammed Morsi. Many Egyptians interpreted the call as a signal of support for Morsi, and since then many experts have criticised Obama’s involvement. Yesterday, the Egyptian president was ousted by the military.

What is undeniably true, however, is that in times such as this, the Obama administration must do a more effective job in dealing with scandals if it is to have any chance of regaining control of the legislative agenda. Obama must cast off the aloof, elitist tone that has blighted his relationships in Washington. His administration must be more transparent when dealing with wave after wave of accusations. It must do a better job of communicating with the American public, and in the case of the NSA leak, assure them that their liberties and freedoms are being kept in equal balance with their security and safety.

Adopting a more conciliatory approach toward House Republicans might also be of benefit to the President and how he best responds to these issues, resulting in greater public support for the Commander-in-Chief, and may ultimately help him secure legacy of which he can be proud.

Leo Maxwell

Leo is currently studying for an MSc in American Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He previously gained a 2:1 (Hons) degree in International Relations and Politics from Keele University. He is primarily interested in American political affairs but also writes on international and domestic British issues.

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