Why a trio of scandals isn't hurting Obama: 3 theories

The headlines have been bad, but the president's approval ratings remain surprisingly solid

President Obama
(Image credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Obama's approval rating held steady last week despite days of relentless coverage of a trio of scandals — the IRS' targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups, the Justice Department's spying on the Associated Press, and the ongoing investigation of the Obama administration's handling of last year's deadly Benghazi terrorist attack.

According to a CNN/ORC International survey, 53 percent of Americans polled on Friday and Saturday approved of the job the president is doing. That's actually a two-point improvement (although not a statistically significant one) over CNN's last poll, which was taken in early April.

Why hasn't the trio of scandals dragged Obama down in the polls? The leading theory among Democrats is that the scandals — particularly those involving the IRS and Benghazi — are nothing more than partisan witch-hunts. As Democratic pollster Geoff Garin tells USA Today, the controversies amount to a "tempest in a teapot."

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Paul Brandus at The Week says the public views these matters as important — just not as important as creating jobs. Republicans are "obsessed with exploiting these 'scandals,'" Brandus says, because they want to divert attention from the fact that the economy is actually getting better.

Benghazi, a couple of rogue IRS employees in Cincinnati (working under a Bush appointee), or the Justice Department seizing records from the Associated Press (after Republicans asked the Justice Dept. to investigate leaks). They are all serious issues. But it seems Americans, at least for now, have bigger fish to fry. [The Week]

A third theory for why Obama is weathering the controversies so well is that he wasn't directly involved in any of them. David Espo says at The Associated Press that the "lack of evidence to date of wrongdoing close to the Oval Office" — along with active damage-control efforts by the administration and other Democrats — is shielding Obama from the fallout.

For now, anyway. Rick Moran at American Thinker says Obama might not be so lucky if new information comes to light.

The American people are taking a sensible approach to the scandals. It will take hard, incontrovertible evidence for them to turn on the president completely and with the IRS matter in its early stages, there may yet be more compelling evidence of White House perfidy. For example, if it comes out that Obama knew of the IRS scandal prior to news reports — as seems very likely -— that would shake public confidence in the president's truthfulness. [American Thinker]

John Hinderaker at Power Line says the scandals just haven't had enough time to air out, noting that Watergate didn't hurt Richard Nixon either — at first. "It is the drip-drip of headlines and revelations over the course of months that makes a scandal debilitating, not the initial revelations." Over time, Hinderaker says, Obama's image and agenda could take a beating.

More important, it is the long-term impact in how voters view an administration that matters. For example, Fast and Furious deserved to be a major scandal. But it didn't resonate with most voters because it didn't jibe with their image of Barack Obama, and it wasn't enough, in itself, to change that image significantly. This is why multiple, reinforcing scandals can be so hurtful: They have a better chance of reorienting perceptions of an administration. [Power Line]

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Harold Maass

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami Herald, Fox News, and ABC News. For several years, he wrote a daily round-up of financial news for The Week and Yahoo Finance. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two sons.