Another day, another poll showing that President Obama's job-approval rating is not collapsing under the weight of scandals and controversies. Why is he holding steady? Will it last? And will Republicans take any cues from his staying power?
Given the noise level on Capitol Hill, cable TV, and social media, Obama's 50 percent-plus showings in recent polls from CNN, Pew, and ABC/Washington Post seem somewhat surprising. But two veteran political pollsters, one from each party, say that Obama can expect to maintain his standing as long as there's no evidence that he was involved in the two big furors of the moment: the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny, and the Justice Department seizing Associated Press phone records as part of a leak investigation.
Republican Bill McInturff and Democrat Stan Greenberg agree that Obama is in a relatively strong position short of "a real set of facts that implicates the president," as Greenberg put it. The reasons include Obama's steadfast coalition of blacks, Latinos, and young people, and a Washington tradition of leaving the president in the dark.
The president's core base has kept his approval rating in the mid-40s or higher through the five years of his presidency, McInturff says, and won't desert him. He calls that unusual, and you only have to look back one administration to see why. George W. Bush had job-approval ratings in the 20s and 30s for most of his second term. Obama's job approval could drop over time due to the controversies, McInturff says, "but will they restructure his job approval? Not with the information we have today."
The IRS mess is edging ever closer to Obama, with the news that his White House counsel and other top administration officials knew about an inspector general investigation into IRS targeting nearly a month ago. But White House spokesman Jay Carney says Obama was not told. "There was nothing the president could or should do" until the official findings were released, he said, and Obama moved fast once that happened last week.
That seems preposterous to some, and has at the least made Obama seem disengaged, but McInturff calls it a plausible scenario. "People don't want to tell the president bad news," he says. "If things get messy, the furthest thing from your mind is, 'Oh, I think the president needs to know about this.' " He says he expects Americans to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, as they have to past presidents. "People say he can't know everything. They don't expect him to. Nobody could."
Of course, that all could change with new information. With Congress in investigative mode on the IRS, the AP incident, and last year's fatal attacks on U.S. personnel in Benghazi, there remains the prospect of more shoes dropping. In the meantime, both parties are claiming political advantage. The trio of controversies is giving the GOP "enormous fuel" in its drive to recruit House and Senate candidates for 2014, McInturff says.
Greenberg sees an empowered tea party that could be instrumental in nominating unelectable candidates—the same problem the GOP has had in the past. "It's a very mixed bag of whether the energy created here helps Republicans," he says. The other problem for the opposition, as Greenberg sees it, is that the GOP probes and rhetoric are landing in a framework of "months and months of Republican gridlock motivated by partisanship." To much of the public, he says, this just seems like more of the same.
The favorability gap between Obama and the Republican Party is substantial, with views of Obama well above 50 percent favorable in most polls and Republicans hovering at 60 percent unfavorable. The generally good impression of Obama is periodically reinforced by events in and out of his control. For instance, his commencement address at Morehouse, a college for black men, was a highly personal speech about overcoming adversity, his own fatherless childhood and his not always constructive race-consciousness, and the need to take personal responsibility to break cycles of poverty and broken families. Clips of the speech on the network news served to remind people not just of the history he represents but of the personal qualities that hold appeal across party lines.
The tornado in Oklahoma is also intruding on the news cycle in a way that shows Obama at his most caring. "The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them as long as it takes," he said Tuesday, his words similar to what he said after Hurricane Sandy, the Newtown shootings, the Boston bombings, and the Texas plant explosion.
After Sandy, which devastated parts of New York and New Jersey, Obama's approval ratings rose. But that's unlikely to happen with the tornado. McInturff points out that it did not happen in an international media center with hundreds of reporters to cover it. And let's face it, Gov. Mary Fallin is no Chris Christie. Still, the tornado story is so tragic and compelling that it has forced the media off its exclusive scandal focus, at least temporarily.
Obama himself will be changing the subject in a big way on Thursday, when he gives a speech on counterterrorism that the White House says will address drones and the Guantanamo Bay prison. It would not be surprising if Obama discussed the AP phone records controversy as well. All of this will inevitably be inflammatory, which also means that it will get heavy coverage. And any day people see Obama talking about protecting the country, rather than fending off questions about the IRS and whether he's a modern-day Richard Nixon, is one more day he's helping rather than hurting his presidency.
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