Obama’s rating steady in face of controversies, likely buoyed by rising economic hopes

Mark Wilson/Getty Images - President Obama during a news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House, May 16, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Majorities of Americans believe that the Internal Revenue Service deliberately harassed conservative groups by targeting them for special scrutiny and say that the Obama administration is trying to cover up important details about the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans last year.

But a new Washington Post-ABC News poll also finds that allegations of impropriety related to the controversies have yet to affect President Obama’s political standing.

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Obama weathers anti-government storm
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Obama weathers anti-government storm

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The president’s approval rating, at 51 percent positive and 44 percent negative, has remained steady in the face of fresh disclosures about the IRS, the Benghazi attack and the Justice Department’s secret collection of telephone records of Associated Press journalists as part of a leak investigation.

A bare majority of Americans say they believe that Obama is focused on issues that are important to them personally; just 33 percent think so of congressional Republicans. Brighter assessments of the economy may be one reason that the president has been able to weather controversies. For the first time since the 100-day mark of Obama’s first term, most say they are optimistic about the direction of the economy. More than half, 56 percent, say the economy is on the mend, the most to say so in polls since 2009.

After two months of clearly negative ratings over his handling of the economy, Obama has climbed back to about even, with as many now approving as disapproving of his performance on this front. The president also holds a nine-percentage-point advantage over congressional Republicans on the issue.

At the same time, improving attitudes about the economy have not boosted feelings about the country’s overall direction: A solid majority continues to say that the nation is seriously off course.

Obama’s job-performance numbers have changed little over the past couple of months, but the stability of those ratings come with an obvious caveat. Information continues to emerge about the administration’s role in the IRS case, as well as new details about the Benghazi attack and the circumstances under which the Justice Department acted to secure records from the AP.

News on any of these fronts may shift how and whether Americans assess political culpability. With congressional hearings continuing, the administration faces a potentially lengthy testing period. So, too, does Congress.

The IRS scandal

One underlying sentiment revealed in the poll may have broad implications: People are now far more apt to see the federal government as threatening, rather than protecting, the rights of average Americans.

The IRS scandal, in particular, has touched a nerve with the public. Nearly three-quarters of Americans say the tax agency’s decision to target conservative groups was inappropriate, with most saying they feel “strongly” that it was wrong. A majority, 56 percent, see the IRS action as a deliberate effort to harass these groups; far fewer, 31 percent, describe it as an administrative mistake.

Condemnation of the IRS action cuts across party lines, with big majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents alike deeming it inappropriate. But although most Republicans and independents critical of the IRS activity consider it illegal, Democrats are more apt to view the targeting of the groups as inappropriate but not illegal.

There is a similar partisan split over whether what occurred amounted to deliberate harassment or an administrative mistake. Majorities of Republicans (72 percent) and independents (59 percent) call it deliberate harassment; just 44 percent of Democrats agree.

Cross-party divisions are even wider on the question of whether the administration has been forthright about what it knows about the IRS case. About three-quarters of Republicans accuse the administration of a coverup, while about two-thirds of Democrats say the administration has been honestly disclosing what it knows.

The IRS scandal has brought the tea party back into the spotlight, but it has done little to change the public’s impressions of the political movement. In the poll, 40 percent of all Americans say they support the tea party movement and 43 percent oppose it, numbers stable back to last year. A record high of 17 percent express no opinion on the question. About 73 percent of conservative Republicans say they support the movement, but that’s the lowest percentage to say so in polls going back more than two years.

The Benghazi episode

Obama has expressed outrage over the IRS action, which has led to the resignation of acting director Steven Miller. But on Benghazi, Obama and others in the White House have turned their fire on Republicans leading the investigation of events that led to the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, in Benghazi last Sept. 11.

Obama has called the hearings a partisan sideshow, and White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer called the GOP-led efforts “partisan fishing expeditions” during a round of appearances on the Sunday talk shows. Americans are evenly split on the motivations of Republicans: 44 percent say they are raising legitimate concerns, while 45 percent see only political posturing. But those numbers mask a wide partisan gulf, with 74 percent of Republicans seeing the GOP-led investigation as legitimate and 71 percent of Democrats sensing political opportunism.

Most Americans, 55 percent, say they think that the Obama administration is trying to cover up facts about the Benghazi attack; 33 percent say the administration is honestly disclosing what it knows. Among Republicans, the sense of a coverup jumps to 81 percent. About 60 percent of independents also see deception in the matter, as do 29 percent of Democrats.

Republicans looking into the Benghazi episode have focused on the role played by former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who left office with sky-high ratings. In the poll, 62 percent of all respondents say they approve of the way she handled her job as secretary of state; just 28 percent disapprove. Clinton’s approval rating has dipped six points since December, but it remains in clearly positive territory. Those who see coverup in the administration’s handling of the Benghazi controversy split down the middle in rating Clinton’s performance at the State Department.

The Justice Department’s leak investigation and the secret collection of AP telephone records put renewed focus on the balance between national security and government intrusion on press freedoms.

Overall, a big majority of Americans, 69 percent, say they are at least somewhat concerned that the government — in trying to protect classified information — will improperly intrude on freedom of the press. Still, a slim majority, 52 percent, says it sees the Justice Department’s seizure of the AP records as justified. Democrats, Republicans and independents are in general agreement when it comes to the AP matter and broader concerns about the freedom of the press.

It is not clear whether the multiple controversies will affect congressional action on other issues, but the poll found an increase in public pessimism about whether Obama and Republican lawmakers will work together on important issues. By 2 to 1, 64 percent to 32 percent, Americans are sour on the possibilities for bipartisan action, with the number of hopeful dropping 14 points since the post-election period. Such hopefulness has dropped 18 points among Democrats, 15 among independents and 10 among Republicans.

The poll was conducted May 16 to 19 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. The results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Cohen is polling director for Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Capital Insight pollsters Peyton M. Craighill, Scott Clement and Kimberly Hines contributed to this report.

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