Barack Obama enters the twilight of his presidency as a popular and respected figure, in no small part because he has run an honest and ethical administration.
Polls show Obama earning approval ratings topping 50 percent despite deep divisions over his policies. That’s higher than most postwar second-term presidents nearing the end of their time in office. Personal probity has to be a big part of the explanation.
“From the outset of his presidency, with the appointment a White House ethics czar, avoiding ethics and influence-buying problems in his administration has been a top priority for President Obama,” says Fred Wertheimer, who runs the reform group Democracy 21 and for years has been a frequent scold of Washington politicians. “He has done a remarkable job of achieving that goal.”
Conservative activists in the House, along with some commentators and representatives of hostile interest groups, refuse to accept this. They have constantly searched for scandals to taint Obama. For awhile, the favorite involved a 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed. Republicans claimed there was a cover-up to protect Obama’s re-election campaign, but multiple congressional investigations fizzled.
Scandalmongers still strain to link Obama to the mishandling by the Internal Revenue Service of applications for tax exemptions by conservative political-action groups. Nonpartisan and journalistic inquiries concluded that bureaucratic bungling and poor communication produced delays in processing a surge of applications from tea party groups starting in 2010, but found no evidence of White House political involvement. A two-year federal investigation ended with no charges.
By contrast, other recent presidents have endured genuine scandals. Under President Bill Clinton, there were unseemly fund-raising activities, some indictments and the indefensible pardon of the tax fugitive (and Clinton donor) Marc Rich.
And, of course, there was the impeachment trial related to Clinton’s White House sexual encounters with an intern, Monica Lewinsky.
President George W. Bush endured scandals involving the Iraq war and battle against terrorism. Misleading claims about Iraqi weapons programs were made to gain support for the 2003 invasion. It was followed by a bungled reconstruction effort that squandered billions of dollars and led to a disastrous sectarian war. Torture at the Abu Ghraib prison and waterboarding of terror suspects probably violated international law. Bush’s jarring praise in 2005 for an administrator who helped preside over an incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana — remember “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”? — dogs both men to this day.
Obama has had serious policy setbacks, including problems with his signature health-insurance overhaul and the chaotic aftermath of U.S. intervention in Libya. History will judge them in time. Yet his reputation for high character is secure.
In this, he has another advantage. The contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton produces instant nostalgia.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist.