Is Obama the Latest Teflon Man?

New Obama administration scandals are popping up. The latest is the tracking of and threats of criminal prosecution against Fox News Channel reporter James Rosen. Others are deepening, such as news of the IRS scandal investigation reaching top administration officials, and the possibility of new whistleblower testimony on Benghazi that will suggest that Hillary Clinton and the State Department had been involved in selling Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to al-Qaeda and that the White House was opposed to a military mission to support the embattled Benghazi consulate .

Despite the scandal coverage taking up increasing amounts of space in newspapers and time on cable and network news coverage, the president seems to be riding blissfully above the storm, with his poll numbers intact. NBC’s Chuck Todd attributes this to greater confidence among the American population about the improving economy.

The Washington Post poll provides this explanation:

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,

In the first few months of 2013, the job creation and unemployment numbers have been generally pretty decent. The administration predicted doom and gloom from the sequester cuts, but so far there is little evidence of any significant impact from the cuts on the economy. The same holds true for the tax increases that accompanied the year-end deal between Senator Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden that raised rates on top earners and ended the 2% payroll tax cut. In addition, new taxes on high earners to support the Affordable Care Act also went into effect in 2013. So far, both liberals and conservatives have to be disappointed that the state of the economy does not support their narrative. Spending cuts have not brought the economy to a halt, and neither have tax increases. Both Paul Krugman and Grover Norquist may need to reexamine their biases and talking points.

There have been eight polls released testing the approval level for Barack Obama in the past few days. On average, the president’s approval score is 48% and the disapproval score is 48%, with a bit of a drop-off in the president’s approval in the most recent polling. The approval scores are significantly below the levels Obama reached in the heady days after his re-election last November and after securing his long-desired tax increases on high earners into law in January. But the approval numbers have been stable over the past few months. Do these poll numbers indicate that the recent scandals are not reaching the president due to the more favorable recent economic news?

New York Times statistics guru Nate Silver opined that the IRS scandal had all the makings of the type of scandal that could damage the president and the Democrats in the 2014 midterms. The president seemed committed to raising lots of  money for his party and for the group Organizing for America, in hopes of picking up the net 17 seats to put the Democrats back in control of the House for the 2015 session of Congress.  Obama’s fundraising schedule so far in 2013 had been very busy as compared to that of other second-term presidents in their first year after re-election. The president’s typical demagoguery of his opponents as out of touch, greedy, and uncaring had carried over from the presidential campaign into his public talks in the new year.

While the president’s approval rating has remained fairly stable, the developing scandal stories are likely to take a toll on the Democrats in both House and Senate races. Even before the scandals hit critical mass the past two weeks, the Democrats were already reeling from a wave of Senate retirements, several in tossup or red states. These included senators from Michigan, Iowa, West Virginia, Montana, South Dakota, and New Jersey. Only New Jersey and Michigan seem like safe bets for the Democrats to retain the seats at this point. Throw in vulnerable incumbents in the red states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, North Carolina, and possibly New Hampshire, and an argument could be made that the  GOP winning control of the Senate in 2014 appears to be more likely than the Democrats taking back control of the House next year.

The recent polls suggest that, not for the first time, Nate Silver is on to something. There is much public unhappiness over the IRS scandal, and it is obvious why the administration has worked so hard to shield President Obama from  the appearance of being connected to the activities of the IRS agents in Cincinnati and elsewhere who were involved with targeting Tea Party and other conservative groups. The administration is also working to shelter the president from having had knowledge of the investigation of  IRS activities by the inspector general. The president has strongly condemned the activities of the IRS agents, while circling the wagons on Benghazi, obviously seeing more political risk in coming out on the wrong side of one scandal (the IRS) than the other.

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.