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February 19, 2013

USA TODAY, opinion pages:

Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane: Obama poised to avoid the second-term curse

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Since 1973, when former President Richard Nixon took his second oath of office, every re-elected president has faced the second-term curse, a debilitating scandal-driven crisis: Watergate and Nixon; Iran-Contra and Ronald Reagan; impeachment and Bill Clinton. Most recently, George W. Bush’s White House was thrown off track by the Valerie Plame leak investigation, which called into question Bush’s rationale for the Iraq war.

The curse of the second-term scandal exists for three reasons:

First, there is intense scrutiny from the news media looking for the next big scandal. The dogged reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein drove the Watergate scandal, transformed how reporters cover the institution of the presidency and changed how the American people view their president. Add 24-hour cable news under Reagan, talk radio under former President George H.W. Bush, the World Wide Web under Clinton and social media under Bush, and scrutiny has only expanded.

Second, because the federal government has grown, a president names thousands of political appointees, which means no matter how committed one might be to adhering to the highest ethical practices, it is impossible to account for every action by every appointee. Oliver North worked in obscurity before ending up at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal.

Third, the scandal-industrial complex thrives in a hyperpartisan era of politics defined by divided government. The party out of presidential power exploits its control of at least one body of Congress to use, and sometimes abuse, investigative powers. Consider the time and effort wasted during Clinton’s presidency on scandals that meant nothing to most voters.

Is the scandal-industrial complex gearing up to derail President Barack Obama’s second term?

Maybe. Fortunately, Obama is well-positioned to avoid the second-term curse for one powerful reason — trust.

At its core, a scandal is an event that challenges the trust between a president and the public. A hallmark of the Obama presidency is the high degree of personal trust that the president has maintained with the American people. Therefore, if faced with a second-term scandal, the president and his team will be in a position to limit the damage through three actions:


  • Do no harm. In responding to a scandal, what has happened has happened; nothing can be done to reverse events; and one will be judged by whether one handles the situation going forward in a manner that rebuilds trust through transparency, openness and accountability. In some respects, when Reagan said that “mistakes were made,” he accomplished just this — although he took far too long to get to that point. An administration with a second term must recognize that it needs to do no additional harm, apologize, make clear what it will do to address the situation and move on. 


  • Maintain discipline. When a scandal strikes, it is critical to avoid panic amid the fog of a crisis by having the discipline to execute a plan to make clear that the administration is worthy of the public’s trust and that it will not be distracted from the public business. At the end of the day, the American people want a president who works for them — which is exactly why Clinton left office with an extraordinarily high approval rating. 


  • Be credible. In a scandal, credibility is the coin of the realm. Every statement, every response and every action a president makes during a scandal must be accurate, or a president will lose his credibility with the public. Given that a president’s political power is inherently tied to his public standing, all is lost once he loses credibility. 

    Today, there are two kinds of second-term presidents: Those who must confront a scandal-driven crisis, and those who have yet to be sworn in for their second term.

    So far, President Obama is in good shape to avoid such a second-term curse.

    Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane worked in the Clinton White House and are co-authors of “Masters of Disaster: The 10 Commandments of Damage Control.”


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