Obama’s Job Approval Numbers Take A Hit In Wake Of NSA Revelations

President Obama's poll numbers seem to be suffering under the weight of nearly two months of scandals and/ media attention.


Over the past two months, the Obama Administration has had to deal with a host of political fights that have, to a large degree, diverted the attention of the media and official Washington from the legislative agenda and other issues that that many had expected would be the focus of the spring and summer. We’re all familiar with the list whether its Republican efforts to raise questions about the September 2012 attack in Benghazi, the revelation that the IRS had been targeting conservative groups in reviewing applications for 501(c)(4) status,  the Justice Department’s aggressive tactics in investigating leaks, and for the past two week or so the stories about the NSA’s data mining and the questions surrounding government surveillance in the “war on terror” era. For many weeks, it didn’t appears as if these unfolding stories were having much of an impact on the President himself, but a new CNN poll seems to indicate that this is no longer the case and that President Obama’s job approval numbers have taken a not-insignificant hit in the wake of all these revelations:

Washington (CNN) – President Barack Obama’s approval rating dropped eight percentage points over the past month, to 45%, the president’s lowest rating in more than a year and a half, according to a new national poll.

The CNN/ORC International survey released Monday morning comes as the White House has been reacting to controversies over a massive U.S. government surveillance program; the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of tea party and other conservative groups who applied for tax-exempt status; the administration’s handling of last September’s attack in Benghazi that left the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans dead; and the Justice Department’s secret collection of journalists’ phone records as part of a government investigation into classified leaks.

The poll indicates that for the first time in Obama’s presidency, half of the public says they don’t believe he is honest and trustworthy. And Americans are split on the controversial National Security Agency anti-terrorism program to record metadata on U.S. phone calls, but they support the NSA program that targets records of Internet usage by people in other countries. That doesn’t mean they necessarily like what is going on: Just over six in 10 believe that government is so large and powerful that it threatens the rights and freedoms of ordinary Americans.

A slight majority of those questioned in the poll, which was conducted Tuesday through Thursday of last week, disapprove of the actions of the man who leaked sensitive information about the NSA program. A similar number say Edward Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong, should be brought back to the United States and prosecuted.

The president’s approval rating stands at 45%, down from 53% in mid-May. And 54% say they disapprove of how Obama’s handling his job, up nine points from last month. It’s the first time in CNN polling since November 2011 that a majority of Americans have had a negative view of the president.

Among the more interesting pieces of information coming out of the poll is the fact that his approval level among voters under 30 has fallen an astounding 17% in just the course of one month. Additionally, as noted above, his own personal trustworthiness has taken a significant hit. In the last CNN poll 58% of the respondents said that the found the President to be personally trustworthy, in the poll released today that number has fallen nine points to 49%. That’s still a pretty respectable number, but it’s also a significant drop in one aspect of public perception of a President that could have important implications in the future. If this trend continues and the President continues to lose the trust of the public, even just a little bit, it’s going to make it that much harder for him to push his agenda through in the short amount of time he has remaining before he becomes a lame duck.

Ron Fournier says that this is something that should worry the Administration:

This should worry Obama and his team because it has echoes of what destroyed the Bush presidency. After waging war in Iraq on false pretenses and trying to spin his way out of the Hurricane Katrina debacle, Bush saw his trustworthy numbers tumble.

Voters stopped listening to Bush. Political allies abandoned him (as I wrote here in 2005). His presidency was effectively over (as I wrote here in 2007).

Obama can take solace in the fact that the CNN/ORC survey is just one poll. Others may show that his credibility has not slipped, although Democratic pollsters tell me privately the CNN/ORC findings reflect their own.

If this poll is part of a trend, Obama still may be able to recover. But he would need to take immediate steps to show accountability, transparency, and credibility.

No more slow-walking the truth as the White House did with the cause of the Benghazi attacks and with the names of West Wing officials notified about IRS targeting.

No more lies, such as the IRS claiming for months that the targeting did not take place, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper denying the existence of the NSA programs weeks before they were revealed.

No more doublespeak such as the president earnestly claiming, “Your duly elected representatives have consistently been informed” of the NSA programs. He knew that wasn’t quite true, or should have known.


There is no time to waste. Obama already has earned the ignominious distinction of running against Bush’s surveillance programs, then adapting it as president, and expanding it. Does he also want to repeat his predecessor’s credibility crisis?

It’s in entirely possible, of course, that the President will see his poll numbers rebound at some point. That, after all, has been the pattern for him from the beginning. After the initial post-election euphoria wore off, President Obama’s job approval numbers have generally moved within a relatively narrow range. As the chart below from RealClearPolitics shows, there have been times over the past four years when his numbers have moved sharply in one direction or another, but they’ve been short-lived and usually tied to some outside event such as the bin Laden raid:

Obama Job Approval 61713

Just in case there’s any doubt, by the way, it’s fairly clear that the compendium of stories that have come out over the past two months, and most especially the reports regarding NSA surveillance programs, is what’s largely responsible for the President’s slide in the polls:

“It is clear that revelations about NSA surveillance programs have damaged Obama’s standing with the public, although older controversies like the IRS matter may have begun to take their toll as well,” adds Holland.

Six in 10 disapprove of how Obama is handling government surveillance of U.S. citizens, which is higher than the 52% who disapproved of George W. Bush on the same issue in 2006, when government surveillance was also in the headlines.

Obama’s approval rating on terrorism, although still above 50%, has taken a 13-point hit since mid-May. By contrast, his approval rating on domestic issues such as the economy, immigration and the deficit only dropped by two to four points, within the poll’s sampling error.


Forty-three percent of the public says that the Obama administration has gone too far in restricting civil liberties to fight terrorism, with 38% saying the administration has been about right and 17% saying it has not gone far enough.

“That’s roughly the same reaction that the public had to the Bush administration in 2006 when the details of a similar program to gather phone records were made public,” says Holland.

So are we at the beginning of a longer slide for the President that will have a negative impact on his ability to push his agenda through Congress, or is this just another one of those temporary deviations from the standard range that we’ve seen before? We’ll have to wait and see what other polls say over the coming weeks and months to know that for sure. At the very least, though, Fournier is correct to point out that the drop in the public’s trust for the President is a huge deal that the President and his advisers need to be concerned about. One of the main reasons that past drops in job approval have not lasted long for this President has been the fact that the public has a generally favorable view of him personally, including the fact that they find him and his Administration trustworthy. If that’s changing for the negative, then this dip, which is being reflected in other polling if not to quite the same degree as this CNN poll, could end up being far more permanent than the others. And, yes, such a dip will mater. President Obama will not be running for re-election again so, in some sense, these poll numbers aren’t as important as they were before the 2012 election. However, his party will be standing for election in 2014 and beyond and will have a hard time making much progress if they putative leader of the party is on a downward slide with the American public.

FILED UNDER: Public Opinion Polls, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. That’s OK. We’re going to start bombing Syria soon, and war’s good for jobs, so those numbers will spike. USA! USA! USA!

  2. Raven says:

    Obama wipes himself with the Constitution.

  3. a little late dummies says:

    Finally the participation trophy generation realizes what those of us in the real world have known all along. It’s too late to get the Obamanation out of office however. We had a chance in November and these bums passed over a real American hero in Romney to feel cool for voting for their savior. Good luck in the unemployment line kids.

  4. al-Ameda says:

    Well heck yeah – Benghazi is the worst political scandal in American history.

    Also, although we’ve known that the NSA has been data mining phone records since 2006, we’re shocked that it is going on.

  5. al-Ameda says:

    @a little late dummies:

    a real American hero in Romney

    It takes a lot of courage to use leveraged buyouts to purchase American companies, shut down operations, close plants, layoff workers and then sell the company for millions of dollars to potential investors. It’s a deeply moving “only in America” story.

  6. @al-Ameda:

    Don’t forget to forget his valiant decision to capitalize on his father’s fortune and political connections.

  7. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    @a little late dummies: “real American hero in Romney ”

    You may have had a vague sort of point until this utter train wreck of a false claim. He is a hero to no one I have ever heard of. Who wants to idolize that sort of mean-spirited greed, one who lies with the freedom of breathing? One who calculates, but does not empathize?

    No Sale, regardless of whatever Obama is or isn’t. It also applies to the GOP, fading nightmare that is it.

  8. anjin-san says:

    Good luck in the unemployment line kids.

    Actually, in the real world, employment has been steady improving for years after the last GOP train wreck. Say hi to the Faux news babes for us…

  9. stonetools says:

    The problem here is that there has been a cluster of these “scandals”. Tie that in with Obama’s passive “turtle” media strategy, and its not surprising that Obama’s standing has taken a hit.
    Ron Fournier isn’t a reliable critic here either. He’s one of those “independents” who criticizes Republicans but always ends up voting for them.
    I would like the Obama Administration to get out of his shell on these scandals and begin some push-back. He could start by:

    1. Calling on Issa to release ALL the transcripts from the BENGHAZI! and IRS! hearings. Be the person advocating for transparency there.

    2. Pointing out that Snowden really isn’t for “reform” of the national surveillance apparatus, but actually wants to dismantle it root and branch.
    3. Giving a speech where he goes over in detail the differences between his system and GWB’s, then challenging the critics to come up with specific proposals for reform. (He could also ask where those critics were when the Patriot Act renewals were debated two years ago).
    Even if he doesn’t do these, the point is to push back and not just say nothing and hope for the better. That just doesn’t cut it in today’s polarized media climate.

  10. al-Ameda says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Don’t forget to forget his valiant decision to capitalize on his father’s fortune and political connections.

    I’m wiping the tears from my face now as I read your account – how could any of us forget that?

  11. a little late dummies says:

    @al-Ameda: Romney created countless jobs even though libs like you slandered him for it. Sounds like a selfless hero to me

    @anjin-san: Typical lib stuff here. The unemployment rate is still 7.5 with countless still underemployed after 4 years of the Obamanation but you spin the slow growth as proof that your Messiah is not a failure.

  12. Moosebreath says:

    @a little late dummies:

    “Sounds like a selfless hero to me”

    Because he did not make any money from the companies who hired them?

  13. bk says:

    Looks like a couple of people took time off from commenting on Yahoo news articles and came over here.

  14. anjin-san says:

    @ a little late dummies says:

    I’m sure you pine for the good old days of 500K a month job losses. At any rate, we have people on hand to provide boring right wing screeds.. perhaps you should apply elsewhere.

  15. Caj says:

    Wow! President Obama’s poll numbers have slipped. Down to 45%. Compared to the do nothing useless pieces of crap in Congress who only poll at 10%, I’d say President Obama is doing very well thanks very much!

  16. edmondo says:

    However, his party will be standing for election in 2014 and beyond and will have a hard time making much progress if they putative leader of the party is on a downward slide with the American public.

    just wait until his “Medical Insurance Profit Protection” law goes into fulll effect in 2014. Can you say 2010 deja vu all over again?

  17. al-Ameda says:

    @a little late dummies:

    @al-Ameda: Romney created countless jobs even though libs like you slandered him for it. Sounds like a selfless hero to me

    Thanks for the specifics – what was it ,10 jobs? 20 jobs?

  18. socraticsilence says:

    @a little late dummies:

    What made Romney a “real American Hero”- was it when he actively protested in favor of a draft the had no intention of subjecting himself too? Was it when he looted the pensions blue collar Americans had worked their entire lives for and shipped their jobs overseas. Was it when he held down a gay kid in HS and shaved his head? Was it when he impersonated an officer and pulled over young ladies on desolate Michigan highways?

  19. socraticsilence says:

    @a little late dummies:

    Fair point, truly he is a selfless hero, I mean remember when Jesus bought the mansion next door so he could tear it down and build an elevator for his cars?