Here’s why the ‘scandals’ aren’t affecting Obama’s poll numbers

May 20, 2013

If you've been reading the newspapers, you know that the Obama administration has had a very tough week.


President Obama speaks about the IRS and Benghazi at a news conference. (The Washington Post)

It was "a bad week for the White House," according to the National Journal. USA Today said it was "one of the most challenging weeks at the White House for the Obama administration." The Washington Examiner went with "Obama's roughest week." Our colleagues at The Fix dissented a bit: They didn't think it was Obama's worst week ever. Just his second-worst week ever.

But if you've been watching the polls, well, you wouldn't know anything has been going wrong at all. You might even think President Obama was having a good week.

Obama was at 49 percent in last week's Gallup poll. He's at 49 percent in this week's Gallup poll. CNN gave Obama even better news. A poll conducted on Friday and Saturday -- so, peak scandal days -- found the president's approval rating at 53 percent. That's a slight increase from their last poll, which was conducted in April and found Obama's approval at 51 percent.

A possible explanation could be that the public simply doesn't care about these issues. But that's not what CNN found. Eighty-five percent said that the IRS.'s actions were either "very important" or "somewhat important." Eighty-four percent said the same about Benghazi. Eighty-seven percent said the same about the AP/DoJ issue. And yet Obama's numbers are unchanged.

The public is simply separating the scandals from Obama. They're upset about the IRS, Benghazi, and DoJ stories. But most think the president has been truthful. Most think the IRS acted on its own. And the dissenters disapproved of Obama before the scandals, too.

The public's reaction to the scandals is, in other words, being mediated by their reaction to Obama. If they approve of Obama, they're inclined to believe that neither he nor anyone in his circle ordered the IRS to attack tea party groups and that the administration did its best in the immediate aftermath of Benghazi. If they disapprove of Obama, they're inclined to believe he or someone in his circle was controlling the IRS, and that the Benghazi talking points were part of a cover-up.

"People respond along party lines," writes Alan Abramowitz, an Emory political scientist who predicted last week that the polls would remain unchanged, "just like members of Congress. Republicans believe the worst of Obama, but they already believed the worst of Obama. Democrats (correctly) see Republicans pushing these things because they are out to get Obama and stop his agenda and/or they think Obama is responding correctly to the problems that do exist. So it's like almost every other issue or controversy."

This could change if clear evidence emerges tying Obama to the IRS, or showing that something more sinister happened in the aftermath of Benghazi. But absent such revelations, these scandals are likely to simply harden the Democratic perception that Republicans are out to get Obama, and the Republican perception that Obama is a corrupt president.

Think about this in your own life: Have you seen anyone in the media, or do you actually know anyone personally, whose opinion of Obama has flipped in the past week?

In a country this polarized by party, the news needs to be quite extraordinary, and the blame quite clear, if it's going to actually change people's core political beliefs. Otherwise, most people just take it as proof that they were right all along.

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