Obama’s Credibility Is At Risk

The troubled health care rollout and disclosures that the NSA spied on allies have damaged the public’s view of the president’s ability to do his job.

US President Barack Obama and host Jon Stewart speak during a break in the live taping of Comedy Central?s "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on October 18, 2012 in New York. This is the second appearence on the satirical show by President Obama. 
AFP/Getty Images
Charlie Cook
Oct. 31, 2013, 5 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s al­lies are al­tern­ately win­cing over, or shak­ing their heads at, the troubled rol­lout of the Af­ford­able Care Act and its web­site, as well as dis­clos­ures that U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies spied on some of our closest al­lies. Many of the pres­id­ent’s sup­port­ers are prob­ably wish­ing they could avoid watch­ing news pro­grams al­to­geth­er, hop­ing the dam­aging re­ports will just go away. The eaves­drop­ping on the cell-phone con­ver­sa­tions of Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel and French Pres­id­ent François Hol­lande (the lat­ter head­ing the only European na­tion sup­port­ive of the ini­tial U.S. plan for air­strikes on Syr­ia) has been par­tic­u­larly hard to de­fend be­cause it puts the United States (and Obama) in an enorm­ously awk­ward po­s­i­tion.

What makes these prob­lems more trouble­some than some oth­er con­tro­ver­sies is that they go to the ques­tion of Obama’s com­pet­ence, rather than to dif­fer­ences of policy or ideo­logy. On policy dis­putes, one side may like a de­cision and the oth­er may dis­like it, of­ten res­ult­ing in a polit­ic­al wash. However, com­pet­ence is­sues cut across the par­tis­an and ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum, and they can have a real im­pact on in­de­pend­ents and mod­er­ates. These voters, who by defin­i­tion don’t look at is­sues and events through a par­tis­an or ideo­lo­gic­al prism, are nor­mally com­fort­able stand­ing be­hind the pro­ver­bi­al plate, call­ing balls and strikes as they see them. They usu­ally don’t root for one side or the oth­er.

While it is cer­tainly un­der­stand­able that no pres­id­ent is clued in on all of the sources and meth­ods of vari­ous in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, the fer­vor sur­round­ing the sur­veil­lance is­sue has ris­en to the point of comed­ic fod­der. On Monday night, Daily Show host Jon Stew­art framed the White House line that Obama was “out of the loop,” or un­aware of the sur­veil­lance of al­lies, by not­ing, “There ap­pear to be very few loops he’s in.” Why was the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency or any U.S. in­tel­li­gence agency eaves­drop­ping on Merkel? In truth, the an­swer to an age-old ques­tion, cleaned up for this pub­lic­a­tion, ap­plies here: “Why does a dog lick his private parts?” The an­swer is al­ways, “Be­cause he can.”

In this case, the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies ac­ted be­cause they can: They have the tech­no­lo­gic­al cap­ab­il­ity to listen in on Merkel’s calls or, for that mat­ter, any­one else’s, and they have no spe­cif­ic or­ders to re­frain from such activ­ity. The pos­sib­il­ity that the pro­gram could be­come pub­lic and cre­ate real prob­lems in the U.S. re­la­tion­ship with one of our most trus­ted friends doesn’t ap­pear to have been con­sidered by whomever made this de­cision. In fair­ness, it is doubt­ful wheth­er any polit­ic­al ap­pointee of this ad­min­is­tra­tion, or even the pre­vi­ous one, when the sur­veil­lance ap­par­ently star­ted, gave the green light for it or was even aware that agen­cies were do­ing this for a long time. Yet that makes little dif­fer­ence at this point.

Doubts about com­pet­ence in­flict dam­age, par­tic­u­larly if they are fol­lowed by oth­er in­cid­ents that re­in­force those doubts and by a vi­gil­ant op­pos­i­tion party flag­ging these mis­cues, as Re­pub­lic­ans can be coun­ted on to do here. Doubts about com­pet­ence eat at en­thu­si­asm among your base and ali­en­ate the mod­er­ates and in­de­pend­ents who are really the ones de­term­in­ing wheth­er a pres­id­ent has strong job-ap­prov­al rat­ings (and note that high rat­ings trans­late in­to clout on Cap­it­ol Hill and, to a cer­tain ex­tent, around the world).

Any pres­id­ent can gen­er­ally count on very good, if not ter­rif­ic, job-ap­prov­al num­bers from mem­bers of his party and on bad or aw­ful num­bers from mem­bers of the op­pos­i­tion party. The ques­tion for a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent isn’t wheth­er he will have good num­bers from fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans and among con­ser­vat­ives, but rather wheth­er he will have ter­rif­ic num­bers among in­de­pend­ents. Same goes for a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent.

And Obama is no ex­cep­tion. For the week of Oct. 21 to Oct. 27, Gal­lup polling found that Obama’s job ap­prov­al was 80 per­cent among Demo­crats, just a touch above his Septem­ber av­er­age of 79 per­cent; among Re­pub­lic­ans, it was 10 per­cent, some­what lower than the 12 per­cent in Septem­ber. Among lib­er­als, Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing was 74 per­cent, slightly above his 71 per­cent for Septem­ber; among con­ser­vat­ives, it was 22 per­cent, just be­low the 23 per­cent last month. None of these num­bers are par­tic­u­larly re­mark­able.

It’s al­ways more in­ter­est­ing to watch the num­bers among in­de­pend­ents and mod­er­ates, be­cause their views are much less anchored in par­tis­an­ship or ideo­logy. Among in­de­pend­ents, Obama’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ing was 36 per­cent, about the same as the 37 per­cent for Septem­ber; among mod­er­ates, it was 47 per­cent, a little bit be­low the 50 per­cent for Septem­ber. While it would cer­tainly be reas­on­able to ex­pect Obama’s num­bers to dip a little among par­tis­ans and ideo­logues in re­ac­tion to re­cent events, those num­bers aren’t likely to move as much as those from the in­de­pend­ents and mod­er­ates.

Com­ing on the heels of the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s self-in­flic­ted wounds caused by its hand­ling of the gov­ern­ment shut­down and the near-de­fault on the na­tion­al debt, Obama’s troubles take some of the pres­sure off the GOP. They make Re­pub­lic­ans some­what less de­fens­ive than they would oth­er­wise be un­der these cir­cum­stances. Watch the num­bers among in­de­pend­ents and mod­er­ates; their ver­dicts will de­term­ine how bad this prob­lem is for Obama and how much last­ing dam­age it could in­flict.