The Washington Post summary of the initial public reaction to the various scandals confirms this:
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.”
Several conservative writers, Kimberley Strassel and Jonah Goldberg among them, have made a strong case that even if the president did not give direct instructions to the IRS agents to misbehave, he set the tone for the agents’ activities with his public condemnation of the Tea Party and their taking advantage of the tax code to promote political activities. So far, the public does not seem to have made the same link.
One other threat to the president is the skepticism about big government that may emerge from the various scandals, particularly the IRS targeting. The Affordable Care Act was already a political loser, and many Democrats have been fearful of the political impact in 2014 of a bungled implementation of the health care exchanges. Several of the retiring Democratic senators who were intimately involved in crafting the overly complex, potentially unworkable bill, such as Jay Rockefeller and Max Baucus, have announced their retirements. Rockefeller and Baucus have predicted a disastrous start for the first full implementation year of the legislation in 2014.
Now a connection has been made between the legislation and the IRS, an agency that will be at the heart of collecting taxes for those who do not sign up with the new state exchanges, as well as monitoring individuals’ health insurance decisions. The fact that the former director of the tax-exempt organizations unit at the IRS will now run the Obamacare activities at the IRS was not something the administration expected to blow back in their faces, but it has.
The Watergate scandal in 1972-1974 robbed the Nixon White House of the mandate it thought it had won with its 49 state victory — an 18 million and 23% popular vote margin in 1972. By 1976, a little known peanut farmer from southern Georgia was elected president for the Democrats, largely on a clean-government, “I will never lie to you” platform. The supposed Republican lock on the Electoral College was broken and Democrats won big majorities in Congress.
The 2012 election led to much GOP and conservative soul searching on whether the country’s rapid demographic changes doomed the party to permanent minority status. This doom and gloom existed despite far less of a mandate for Obama in his second-term victory than Nixon achieved — 26 states carried, and a 5 million (4%) popular vote margin. Of course, the GOP also retained control of the House, 30 governorships, and a majority of state legislative seats.
The impact of the scandals is likely to be a shift in the political momentum heading towards 2014. The GOP, the Tea Party, and conservatives have a spring in their step and this may lead to higher turnout in the midterms. Democrats are on the defensive.
A lot has changed in six months regardless of Obama’s approval numbers.