President Obama’s key asset as a politician has always been his personal brand. Most Americans have always held him in high esteem, even as they disapproved of his overall job performance. During the presidential election, for instance, Obama’s approval ratings always lagged behind his favorability.
For Republicans, this has been a difficult problem to overcome. The GOP hasn’t had much trouble convincing the public that Obama isn’t up to snuff on his handling of the economy, or his overall ability to get stuff done (although a large chunk of that has to do with the Republican stance of categorical obstruction). Even still, the public hasn’t rejected Obama, for the simple reason that voters like the president, and want him to succeed.
Which is why Benghazi and the scandal at the Internal Revenue Service has been such a godsend for the Republican Party. Does the White House have anything to do with the IRS decision to heighten scrutiny for conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status? Not at all. Likewise, there’s no evidence that Obama—or his aides—covered up information relating to the attacks in Benghazi, as many conservatives allege. But the constant accusations of “Nixonian” behavior—and the possibility that there was something incriminating in each of these events—have harmed Obama’s image.
The latest poll from Quinnipiac University bears this out. In it, just 49 percent say President Obama is “honest and trustworthy,” a nine-point decline from Quinnipiac’s previous poll. Overall, he gets a 45 percent job approval rating, with 49 percent who disapprove. This is on the low end of recent polls, but not an outlier, and a sign that the appearance of scandal is harming his standing.
And as far as the scandals themselves? While 43 percent of Americans say that congressional criticism of Obama’s handling of Benghazi is “just politics,” 44 percent believe that criticism of Obama and the IRS raises “legitimate concerns.” Given the House’s (justified) investigation of the situation in the IRS—and the extent to which conservative media will work to keep it in the news—these numbers should stay stable over the next few months. Whether they last into next year, however, is an open question.
If they do, then Republicans will have dealt Obama a serious political blow. His high personal standing has cushioned his job approval, without the former, Americans might be less forgiving of the latter. He does, however, have one key variable on his side—the economy. Thirty-four percent of Americans say the economy is getting better, and 73 percent say that it’s their overriding concern. Moreover, the economy is improving; unemployment has been on a steady decline, and growth has ticked up over the last few months.
If that continues—and Democrats can claim credit for an improved economy next year—there’s no amount of scandal-mongering that will put them at a disadvantage.