Scandals Having Seemingly No Impact On Public Opinion Of President Obama
So far, three weeks of bad news hasn't really had much of an impact on the public's view of how President Obama is handling his job.
Another poll seems to indicate that nearly three constant weeks of stories about scandals ranging from Benghazi to the IRS to the Justice Department’s aggressive pursuit of journalists during the course of leak investigations isn’t having much of an impact on how the public views the President:
Majorities of Americans believe that the Internal Revenue Service deliberately harassed conservative groups by targeting them for special scrutiny and say that the Obama administration is trying to cover up important details about the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans last year.
But a new Washington Post-ABC News poll also finds that allegations of impropriety related to the controversies have yet to affect President Obama’s political standing.
The president’s approval rating, at 51 percent positive and 44 percent negative, has remained steady in the face of fresh disclosures about the IRS, the Benghazi attack and the Justice Department’s secret collection of telephone records of Associated Press journalists as part of a leak investigation.
A bare majority of Americans say they believe that Obama is focused on issues that are important to them personally; just 33 percent think so of congressional Republicans. Brighter assessments of the economy may be one reason that the president has been able to weather controversies. For the first time since the 100-day mark of Obama’s first term, most say they are optimistic about the direction of the economy. More than half, 56 percent, say the economy is on the mend, the most to say so in polls since 2009.
After two months of clearly negative ratings over his handling of the economy, Obama has climbed back to about even, with as many now approving as disapproving of his performance on this front. The president also holds a nine-percentage-point advantage over congressional Republicans on the issue.
At the same time, improving attitudes about the economy have not boosted feelings about the country’s overall direction: A solid majority continues to say that the nation is seriously off course.
Obama’s job-performance numbers have changed little over the past couple of months, but the stability of those ratings come with an obvious caveat. Information continues to emerge about the administration’s role in the IRS case, as well as new details about the Benghazi attack and the circumstances under which the Justice Department acted to secure records from the AP.
As I’ve suspected, the IRS scandal is the one that seems to resonate with the public:
The IRS scandal, in particular, has touched a nerve with the public. Nearly three-quarters of Americans say the tax agency’s decision to target conservative groups was inappropriate, with most saying they feel “strongly” that it was wrong. A majority, 56 percent, see the IRS action as a deliberate effort to harass these groups; far fewer, 31 percent, describe it as an administrative mistake.
Condemnation of the IRS action cuts across party lines, with big majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents alike deeming it inappropriate. But although most Republicans and independents critical of the IRS activity consider it illegal, Democrats are more apt to view the targeting of the groups as inappropriate but not illegal.
There is a similar partisan split over whether what occurred amounted to deliberate harassment or an administrative mistake. Majorities of Republicans (72 percent) and independents (59 percent) call it deliberate harassment; just 44 percent of Democrats agree.
Cross-party divisions are even wider on the question of whether the administration has been forthright about what it knows about the IRS case. About three-quarters of Republicans accuse the administration of a coverup, while about two-thirds of Democrats say the administration has been honestly disclosing what it knows.
There also seems to be some potential danger for the Administration in the Benghazi story:
Obama has called the hearings a partisan sideshow, and White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer called the GOP-led efforts “partisan fishing expeditions” during a round of appearances on the Sunday talk shows. Americans are evenly split on the motivations of Republicans: 44 percent say they are raising legitimate concerns, while 45 percent see only political posturing. But those numbers mask a wide partisan gulf, with 74 percent of Republicans seeing the GOP-led investigation as legitimate and 71 percent of Democrats sensing political opportunism.
Most Americans, 55 percent, say they think that the Obama administration is trying to cover up facts about the Benghazi attack; 33 percent say the administration is honestly disclosing what it knows. Among Republicans, the sense of a coverup jumps to 81 percent. About 60 percent of independents also see deception in the matter, as do 29 percent of Democrats.
At the same time, though, Charlie Cook notes that Republicans should take note of the fact that Americans don’t seem to be paying nearly as much attention to these stories as partisan Republicans seem to be:
Maybe that will change. Maybe these allegations will start getting traction with voters. But it might just be that Americans are more focused on an economy that is gradually coming out of the longest and deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Most economists say the current quarter will show a slowdown in economic growth from the first quarter’s 2.5 percent pace, but they expect the economy to be stronger in the second half of this year. People may be encouraged by housing prices rising and the stock market setting record highs—and their retirement accounts may actually be looking better. The University of Michigan’s widely watched Consumer Sentiment Index is at the highest level since 2007, before the recession. The Conference Board’s more volatile Consumer Confidence Index is also generally moving up, although it isn’t at the record level of the Michigan index. The National Federation of Independent Business’s Index of Small Business Optimism, which took a deep plunge after the election, increased last month and is on an upward trend since the beginning of the year. Maybe the people and businesses polled have written off Washington as a political cesspool, and so these stories don’t affect them much. Perhaps they see this town as a place that can’t seem to get anything right.
One wonders how long Republicans are going to bark up this tree, perhaps the wrong tree, while they ignore their own party’s problems, which were shown to be profound in the most recent elections. Clearly none of these recent issues has had a real impact on voters yet. Republicans seem to be betting everything on them, just as they did in 1998—about which even Newt Gingrich (who was House speaker that year) commented recently to NPR, “I think we overreached in ’98.”
Republicans and conservatives who are so consumed by these “scandals” should ask themselves why, despite wall-to-wall media attention and the constant focus inside the Beltway—some are even talking about grounds for impeachment—Obama’s job-approval needle hasn’t moved.
Absent solid evidence that someone close to the President was involved in the IRS scandal, or was directing people in the IRS to target the 501(c)(4) applications of conservative groups, or something more explosive about Benghazi than we’ve already seen, it seems to me as though it’s unlikely that this is going to change. Right now, these stories, and the hearings that are taking place on Capitol Hill, are getting a lot of media attention right now. As we head into the slow news season of the summer, that’s likely to continue. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that many hearings of this type — including both the Watergate and Iran/Contra hearings —- hit their peak during the summer. However, that doesn’t mean that this is going to inure to the political benefit of the Republican Party. In the end, Americans may end up viewing this nothing more than another one in the long running series of partisan disputes that have gripped Washington during the Obama Administration and, indeed, in the years before it. If that’s the case, then the GOP may find that there’s not much of a political payoff from all of this.