Controversies Doom Obama’s Effort to Restore Faith in Government
It’s impossible to predict the lasting impact of the controversies now besetting the Obama administration, but the risks to the president’s agenda are sizable.
On the legislative front, they could doom the already cloudy prospects for comprehensive immigration reform. The implementation of President Obama’s health care law is also likely to be a bit more challenging. It’s possible, too, that this week’s controversies could provide a big boost for Republicans heading into the 2014 midterm elections.
But it might not be that clear-cut.
Americans are somewhat unhappy with the president’s explanations of what happened in Benghazi last September when the U.S. ambassador to Libya was murdered, but they still give him overall good marks for his handling of national security. The recent congressional hearings on Benghazi did nothing to change that reality.
Voters are clearly upset by the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups. Fifty-seven percent believe that those responsible should be either fired or jailed. But it’s not clear whether the president or his top aides were involved, although many suspect they were.
The Department of Justice’s seizure of telephone records from a major news organization as part of an investigation into news leaks of national security secrets is more nuanced. Many voters think the press has too much freedom already and that there is not enough done to protect national security. But while the public is not up in arms over this issue, journalists are. So there is likely to be more aggressive reporting on some of the other challenges facing the White House.
The key to measuring the impact over the coming months will be the president’s job approval ratings. He’s been hovering around the 50 percent mark for much of his second term. Those numbers are not likely to sink rapidly because of the partisan reality behind the numbers. Among Republicans, the president’s ratings can’t go much lower. That means any change will have to come from unaffiliated voters or Democrats.
Unaffiliated voters are not terribly enthusiastic about the president. His overall job approval rating among these voters has remained consistently in the 40s. If that begins to fall, so will prospects for the president’s agenda and his party in 2014.
Still, the president continues to enjoy solid support from Democrats. George W. Bush enjoyed similar support from Republicans until the sixth year of his tenure. At that point, Bush’s ratings from within his own party fell as low as the high 60s. If that happens to Obama among Democrats, the GOP could win big in 2014.
It also seems likely that this past week will make the president’s biggest uphill battle impossible to achieve. He has spent his public career trying to build faith in the federal government. At times, his own belief in government appeared so strong that he seemed genuinely puzzled to encounter people who didn’t share it.
Even before the latest controversies, the president was fighting a losing battle. Following his re-election, just 34 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of the federal government. At the time, I wrote: “A successful second term for President Obama could convince others to abandon their historic American skepticism about government. A troubled second term could reinforce that skepticism.”
Over the past week, public skepticism has been reinforced in a big way.