Articles

Obama's Credibility Gap and the 2014 Midterms

June 12, 2013

A trifecta of scandals—the IRS targeting of conservative groups, the Justice Department's subpoena of reporters' phone and email records, and the government's response to the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi—are eroding President Obama's credibility.

A June 2 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows the damage. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed say the Benghazi and Justice Department scandals "raise doubts about the overall honesty and integrity of the Obama Administration," while 55% say the same about the IRS targeting.

A plurality holds Mr. Obama responsible for each scandal. A combined 41% say he is either "totally or mainly responsible" for mishandling the Benghazi attack while 19% say he is "not responsible at all." On the Justice Department's seizure of reporters' phone records, 37% believe he is "totally or mainly responsible" versus 14% who say the president is "not responsible at all." On the IRS targeting of conservative groups, 33% hold Mr. Obama "totally or mainly responsible" while 24% say he is "not responsible at all."

There are troubling signs in other polls. Just 32% approve of the president's handling of the IRS scandal, with 50% believing "high-ranking Obama administration officials were aware" of the targeting, according to a June 4 Gallup poll. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that 44% believe "members of the Obama Administration were involved" in the IRS scandal (40% say IRS officials acted on their own).

The president's overall job approval has been adversely affected. According to a Gallup poll on Wednesday, his standing is at 45% approve and 47% disapprove, compared with 52% approve, 44% disapprove in January. With congressional investigations in their early stages, the scandals will continue to be in the news, and the president's approval numbers are likely to fall further.

Mr. Obama is being hurt by more than the scandals themselves—there's also the administration's hapless messaging. Stories change and high-ranking officials continue saying things that are patently untrue, even after the facts have come out.

On May 15, Attorney General Eric Holder said under oath that "With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I've ever been involved in." Six days later, NBC News revealed that he had been involved. The administration claims the IRS targeting was "not political," that it was confined to "low-level IRS employees" in Cincinnati, and that it was in response to a tsunami of applications seeking tax-exempt status. None of these claims are true.

Meanwhile, we still don't know what Mr. Obama did the night of Sept. 11 as Americans died during the Benghazi attack, or who concocted the false story that the attack was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video.

While the firestorm over recent leaks in National Security Agency surveillance techniques belongs in a separate category, this controversy complicates things for the president, preventing him from pivoting from scandals to other issues.

Yet the scandals are a potential trap for Republicans. The GOP will make a mistake if it assumes scandals alone will produce victory in the 2014 congressional midterms.

Scandals are no substitute for a concrete, forward-looking agenda on three issues: strengthening the anemic economic recovery, putting Washington's fiscal house in order, and providing alternatives to ObamaCare that put families and doctors, not government, in charge of health care.

Slightly better economic news has somewhat diminished but not erased the concerns most families have about their jobs and paychecks. Republicans must have something to say to middle-class voters about job creation and raising wages. Convincing voters that Republicans have a credible pro-growth agenda remains the GOP's largest weakness.

The debt keeps growing under budgets offered by both Mr. Obama and the Senate Democrats. Republicans can point to the House budget as a framework to balance the budget in 10 years. They should argue that no family and no small business would escape bankruptcy if it operated like Washington does.

Repeal of ObamaCare is not enough. Even if House Republicans won't take up a comprehensive bill replacing the Affordable Care Act, they should have one or several to offer as road maps for reasonable reform. The platoons of congressional GOP doctors and nurses should lead this effort.

Some House and Senate Republicans believe proposing fixes for the Affordable Care Act's most dysfunctional provisions is a sell out. But offering improvements increases Republican credibility on health care, although they have no chance of passing the Senate.

The Obama presidency is wobbling. Voters will take a fresh look at Republicans. What they want to see is not a party obsessed by scandals but one serious about governing. The challenge facing Republicans is to demonstrate that, starting this fall.

A version of this article appeared June 13, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Obama's Credibility Gap and the 2014 Midterms and online at WSJ.com.

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