The Millennials Sour on Obama

June 20, 2013

Both political parties find their congressional leadership and rank-and-file split by the controversy over the National Security Agency's surveillance of Americans' phone records. Democratic Sen.Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, defends the program for having disrupted plots and prevented terrorist attacks. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, on the other hand, finds it a violation of fundamental civil liberties.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner says Edward Snowden, the NSA contract employee who leaked information about the NSA's activities, is a traitor. Republican Sen. Rand Paul says the program is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy and threatens a class-action lawsuit.

Similarly, public opinion is and has been split. A June 13 CNN/ORC poll asked if "the Obama administration was right or wrong" for "gathering and analyzing information on the phone calls of most Americans in an attempt to locate suspected terrorists." Fifty-one percent said it was right and 48% said wrong. In May 2006, CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup/ORC asked a similar question about such monitoring during George W. Bush's administration. Fifty-four percent said right and 39% said wrong.

Other polls found the same split. According to the June 9 Pew Research Center/Washington Post poll, 56% thought the NSA surveillance program was acceptable, while 41% said it was unacceptable. A similar question in January 2006—asked by ABC News/Washington Post shortly after the New York Times revealed NSA's original program in December 2005—reported that 51% said the program was acceptable and 47% said unacceptable.

The partisan reactions also are interesting. In the 2006 ABC News/Washington Post poll, Republicans broke 75%-23% in favor of the program. In the June 9 Pew poll, they split 52%-47%. In 2006, 37% of Democrats found the program acceptable and 61% unacceptable. Today, with Mr. Obama in office, Democrats shifted to 64% acceptable, 34% unacceptable. Independents have shown less swing but have moved from 44%-55% favorable in 2006 to 53%-44% today.

How does this all reflect on the Obama presidency? The NSA surveillance debate, while contentious, is just one of the president's problems. The administration's overall aimlessness, combined with a trio of scandals and spreading unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere, are taking their toll.

The president's overall job approval in the June 13 CNN/ORC poll is 45% approve, 54% disapprove, down from 53% approve, 45% disapprove in mid-May. His numbers on handling the economy are 42% approve, 57% disapprove; on foreign affairs, 44%-54%; and on the deficit, 34%-64%.

Particularly worrisome for the White House is the 17-point decline in job approval for Mr. Obama over the past month among people under 30 years of age, according to the June 13 CNN/ORC poll. This is significant erosion in what CNN Polling Director Keating Holland calls one of "the most loyal parts of the Obama coalition." Public comments by CNN pollsters suggest that the millennial generation seems very concerned with what its members perceive as the NSA's activities' threat to civil liberties.

The president didn't help himself by saying he welcomed a national debate on this topic and then remaining silent until Monday, when he defended the NSA's work in a television appearance with Charlie Rose on PBS. And he may have created more problems when it comes to his veracity.

For example, the president asserted the NSA's efforts were "transparent" when they are not nor should they be. Why reveal methods to the terrorist enemy so they can adjust to avoid detection? Mr. Obama also claimed, "We set up the FISA court." In reality, the law establishing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was passed in 1978, when the president was still a junior in high school.

He attacked conservative critics, saying "what amuses me is now folks on the right who are fine when there's a Republican president, but now, Obama's coming in with the black helicopters." The president didn't seem to realize this statement opens him up to a charge of shameless opportunism. He opposed the surveillance program when it was conducted under a Republican administration and supports it now that he's in charge.

In any event, Mr. Obama's ratings for being honest and trustworthy are now underwater—49% agree and 50% disagree, according to the June 13 CNN/ORC poll.

It's one thing for the public to differ with a president's policies; it's quite another for Americans to lose trust in his integrity. Once this trust is lost it is hard to regain. The president may be a bad revelation or two away from an irreparable break. If that happens, his second term will be harder than he ever imagined.

A version of this article appeared June 20, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Millennials Sour on Obama and online at

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