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White House

Why We Lied to Obama

We told him he could be popular. What we meant to say was he could be popular ... if he told the truth.

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Ron Fournier
November 13, 2013

Americans told President Obama in 2012, "If you like your popularity, you can keep it."

We lied.

Well, at least we didn't tell him the whole truth. What we meant to say was that Obama could keep the support of a majority of Americans unless he broke our trust. Throughout his first term, even as his job-approval rating cycled up and down, one thing remained constant: Polls showed that most Americans trusted Obama.

 

As they say in Washington, that is no longer operable.

A new Quinnipiac University poll shows for the first time that a majority of Americans (52 percent) don't think the president is honest and trustworthy. His previous lowest mark came on May 30, when 47 percent said he couldn't be trusted. In a related finding, only 39 percent of the public approves of Obama's job performance.

This follows recent polls by Gallup and NBC News/Wall Street Journal showing Obama's approval ratings at the lowest levels of his presidency. Obama's second term is on the same downward trajectory as President George W. Bush's. Obama's predecessor lost credibility with the public after his claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were proven false, and after his rosy assertions about the government's performance during Hurricane Katrina defied logic.

Like his predecessor, Obama seems to be taking his credibility for granted. The Benghazi attack, the seizure of telephone records from the Associated Press, the IRS's investigations of political groups, the National Security Agency's massive domestic-spying operation, the "red line" in Syria, and now Obamacare—the White House responded to every controversy or quasi-scandal with changing explanations, distortion, or outright deception.

Predictably, the public is starting to doubt the word of the president and his team—even as majorities still approve of many of his policies. Obama is dangerously close to following Bush into one of the darkest corners of the American presidency, when the public stops listening to its chief executive.

As my colleague Alex Roarty wrote Tuesday, presidents whose approval plummets in their second term don't recover. "In fact, no president in the last 60 years has watched his approval ratings bounce back during their second term," Roarty found. "Either they didn't make it to another stint in office (Ford, Carter, and George H.W. Bush), never dipped in the first place (Eisenhower and Clinton), or were removed from office at the nadir of their popularity (Nixon)."

Obama and his advisers are abundantly confident of their abilities. He apologized. He promised to fix the Obamacare website. The benefits of his signature law will soon be clear, Obama says. Maybe he'll deliver a big speech (a favorite tactic) or give lip service to what he considers to be clichés of leadership: schmoozing rivals, threatening friends, and imposing his will on the bureaucracy he heads.

But chances are he never recovers Americans' trust and therefore their approval. Why? Because of the precedents Roarty wrote about; because history doesn't lie.

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