Why IRS investigation is already Obama's Watergate – and Benghazi, too

Since Watergate, every two-term president has had a second-term scandal. First-term mistakes and hyperpartisanship make probes – like those into Benghazi and the IRS – almost inevitable.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Barack Obama speaks under an umbrella held by a Marine as a light rain falls during a news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Thursday at the White House. He was asked questions about the IRS investigation.

Will Benghazi become President Obama's Watergate? Or perhaps the IRS scandal?

In a sense, they already have.

Watergate, of course, has become political parlance for any scandal that takes down a president. But it was also something that has become much more mundane – something that has hit every two-term president since. It was a second-term scandal.

President Reagan had the Iran-contra affair. President Clinton had the Monica Lewinsky scandal. President Bush had his vice president, Dick Cheney, embroiled in investigations over the public outing of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame.

Now, it seems, Mr. Obama is genuinely a part of the club, with allegations that the White House hid the fact that the attack on a diplomatic outpost in Libya was terrorism, and that the IRS, on his watch, discriminated against conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. 

The White House has said it did nothing wrong on Benghazi but simply released information as it was known. It also said Sunday that it had no knowledge of the IRS activities against tea party groups and others, and bristled at the idea of investigations swallowing Obama's second-term agenda.

"What we're not going to participate in is partisan fishing expeditions designed to distract from the real issues at hand," said White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer on ABC's "This Week" Sunday.

What is it about second terms that get presidents into so much trouble? The fact that a first term preceded it. Presidential politics is rarely fluffy clouds and rainbows, and the massive American bureaucracy has never been likened to Swiss clockwork. Things go wrong, and (this being politics) that rarely leads to primetime presidential confessionals before Congress.

"What is it about presidents' second terms that makes them seem so scandal-ridden? Simple: The iron law of longevity," writes Doyle McManus in an opinion article for the Los Angeles Times. "All governments make mistakes, and all governments try to hide those mistakes. But the longer an administration is in office, the more errors it makes, and the harder they are to conceal."

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, even has accompanying graphs to prove it. Once inaugural-year jitters are out of the way, the peak time for scandals during a president's career is the fifth year, he found by looking at data for when scandals were reported in the Washington Post.

"The Post data show an initially high risk of scandal as presidents try to find their footing and get their initial nominees confirmed followed by a decline in scandal risk through their second year. The likelihood of a scandal then increases again to a peak around their fifth year in office (for those who are re-elected) before declining by the end of their second term," he writes in a study released last Monday.

Yet time is just one factor in scandals, he suggests. Another powerful factor is how members of the opposition view a president. "The likelihood of scandal increases as the opposition base becomes more hostile to the administration," he writes.

In the current hyperpartisan era, it seems, second-term scandals have become almost an inevitability through a combustible mix of mistakes, secrets, egos, anger, and revenge.

Yet not all scandals are created equal.

Nate Silver at the FiveThirtyEight blog notes that the second-term curse is, to some degree, a creation of media perception. In other words, just because the media are covering it doesn't mean either that Americans are listening or certain to be outraged.

On one hand, he does note a second-term effect: The average approval rating for the seven two-term presidents from Harry Truman to George W. Bush declines from 56 percent in the first year of the second term to 42 percent in the fourth year. But the decline is not universal. 

For example, while Mr. Bush's approval rating plummeted from 45 percent in his fifth year to 28 percent in his eighth, Mr. Clinton's actually increased from 58 to 60 percent – despite his impeachment by the House during the Lewinsky scandal. Likewise, while Mr. Reagan saw his approval decline from 60 to 52 percent from this fifth to eighth year, that 52 percent figure is higher than the average for his first term in office.

To some degree, approval depends on whether Americans think the opposition is reaching to create a scandal. For now, it appears that Americans have not yet decided what to make of Obama's "Watergates."

A Gallup poll released this weekend shows that Americans are not paying close attention to the scandals gripping Washington.

“Slim majorities of Americans are very or somewhat closely following the situations involving the Internal Revenue Service (54 percent) and the congressional hearings on the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and its aftermath (53 percent) … well below the average for news stories Gallup has tracked over the years,” writes Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief.

Yet the poll finds that wide majorities of respondents say the IRS and Benghazi allegations are “serious enough to warrant continuing investigation” (74 percent for the IRS scandal and 69 percent for Benghazi).

In the middle is Obama himself. His approval rating ticked up slightly to 51 percent in the Gallup survey despite his tough week.

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