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As Scandal Swirls Around Obama, Is There Any Fire Beyond the Smoke?

As President Obama finds himself beset with “scandals,” the pundits and commentators in Washington are trying to make sense of it all—trying to determine whether there is any fire beneath all the smoke.

In an insightful piece, Jacob Weisberg, the editor-in-chief of Slate, concludes that there isn’t much meat at all—that we have entered the scandal season in Washington because the election is over, the press is bored with a second Obama term, and Congress needs to attract attention to itself because re-election time is coming.

“Washington’s need for periodic scandal is almost biological,” Weisberg writes. “For legislators, it’s an opportunity to strut on the national stage. For the party out of power, it is politics by other means. For the press, it’s an escape from the boredom and frustration of a second term. Scandal means a break in the routine, a thrilling emergency. At some level, the whole political class loves it.”

According to Weisberg, the biggest problem with trying to inflate the Benghazi controversy in Libya, where 4 Americans were killed last September during an attack on an American consulate, or the IRS scandal, where IRS officials in the Cincinnati office targeted right-wing groups like the Tea Party for deeper scrutiny, is that there were no underlying crimes like there was in Watergate or the Iran-Contra scandals.

“In less tendentious perspective, Benghazi was a tragedy, a chain of errors that left a diplomatic outpost vulnerable. Even clearer is the political motivation behind that investigation, which is to embarrass Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic nomination,” Weisberg writes.

As for the IRS scandal, Weisberg says, “What actually seems to have happened is this: In 2010, a spate of conservative groups was applying for tax-exempt status. This designation is available to organizations whose main activity is not political, so most of the groups were running a kind of scam by asking for it. Low-level employees in a Cincinnati field office thought they could create a shortcut by watching out for red-flag political terms like ‘patriots’ and ‘9/12’ on the applications. The IRS inspector general has persuasively concluded that this was an instance of bureaucratic overzealousness meeting a vague standard, not politically motivated, and not criminal.”

“But this kind of scandal can succeed even where it fails the reality test, thanks to bipartisan cowardice,” he continues. “No politician wants to defend the IRS.”

While this is all swirling around the Capital, Obama is trying his best to ignore it. This week he visited an early education program in Baltimore to highlight his call for Congress to fund pre-kindergarten for low- and moderate-income families. 

“I don’t want to interrupt the studying,” Obama said after walking in on the pre-kindergarten class at Moravia Park Elementary. “So I’m going to grab this chair right here. Come on. Let’s focus.”

In the classroom, he quizzed the children on their addition and subtraction skills and helped them draw pictures of animals with the class.

“I got to say my tiger was not very good,” Obama said later. “The kids were unimpressed.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who traveled to Baltimore with Obama on Friday, said the president was “at ease.”

“He’s doing exactly the right thing, focusing on the substance,” Hoyer said.

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