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Think Obama's In Trouble? That Depends On Your Party

President Obama answered questions on scandals involving the IRS and Justice Department, at a news conference last week at the White House.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
President Obama answered questions on scandals involving the IRS and Justice Department, at a news conference last week at the White House.

Public opinion about the scandals plaguing the Obama administration is decidedly mixed.

Republicans believe that the trio of controversies — concerning Benghazi, the IRS, and the Justice Department snooping on media phone records — are evidence enough that President Obama is either running a government motivated by partisan politics, or is badly out of touch.

Democrats, however, are proving to be much more forgiving.

"These things are being used for political purposes," says Lois Yatzeck, a retired minister in St. Louis. "Obama's political foes are taking advantage of it."

Yatzeck's read on the situation is widely shared. Public opinion polls suggest that Republicans are paying much more attention to these matters and are much more likely to disapprove of Obama's handling of them. Democrats, meanwhile, have been more steadfast in support.

As a result, even as Congress and the rest of Washington have been consumed by these issues for more than a week, the president's approval ratings have yet to take any noticeable hit.

"Part of the issue is that people's opinion of the president is already baked in," says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. "These are rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats, not the leaders in Washington, and yet we found this very large gulf between them."

Consider The Source

A walk along Delmar Boulevard reveals that many people are skeptical about the current trio of scandals — and whether they should even be considered scandals.

The retail-and-restaurant stretch runs through University City, a heavily Democratic enclave just outside St. Louis, near Washington University. Some people there suggest that the current controversies represent opportunism on the part of Republicans and conservative media figures such as Rush Limbaugh.

"It's the same thing as always," says bookseller Scott Bartlett. "The people I hear pointing fingers aren't right about anything."

To the extent that there have been abuses, as with the IRS targeting conservative groups for heightened scrutiny, Bartlett and others along Delmar shrug it off as business as usual.

Michael Kelley, a high school teacher in University City, says that he's inclined to share Bartlett's skepticism about Obama's political opponents. "There's no doubt that the other side of the aisle is taking every opportunity they have to take advantage of these things," he says.

But Kelley is troubled by some of the stories. He feels there are more questions yet to be answered, particularly in regard to the administration's handling of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, last September.

Still, Kelley says, "So far, I haven't seen a trail lead back to the White House."

Not One Simple Scandal

The fact that there are multiple controversies on the political radar helps to complicate matters. And these are not straightforward stories about sex or money-grubbing.

There's a lot of back and forth about these issues and their interpretation. Congressional Democrats may express outrage about the IRS, but in general they have been willing to cut Obama a good deal of slack, as was clear from their questioning of administration officials Tuesday in the Senate banking and finance committees.

The public as a whole is more inclined to react strongly to scandals when leaders of both parties say there's something serious to be upset about, says Adam Berinsky, an expert in public opinion at MIT. That's not happening, so far.

Even as more evidence comes to the fore, the minds of partisans may not be swayed by it, he says. That was the case in 1998, when Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton for lying about his affair with a White House intern.

"People pick their teams and stick with them," he says.

It's normal for partisans to defend the leader of their party and their party's brand. What's striking today, Berinsky says, is that so much more of the public thinks in strongly partisan terms than they used to, meaning presidential approval ratings barely budge in response to changing circumstances.

"As with so many stories these days, it comes down to partisanship," says Regina Lawrence, a journalism professor at the University of Texas who has studied reactions to scandals. "Partisan dynamics are so much stronger now even than they were during the Clinton years."

Should Have Known Better

If you cross the Missouri River from St. Louis, you come into St. Charles County, one of the richest sources of Republican votes in the state. Most of the people walking along the brick-paved Main Street of the city of St. Charles are Republicans, and most of them are highly upset with Obama.

"People should be outraged," says dental hygienist Sylvia Stone. "People should be disturbed that Americans died in Benghazi, and they blamed it on a video that had nothing to do with it."

While Democrats like Kelley — and much of the media coverage — have been concerned with the question of how much the president knew, Republicans say ignorance is no excuse.

"The president saying I learned about it in the press — you're either incompetent or being dishonest," says Bob Sutton, a retiree visiting St. Charles from Pennsylvania. He says he believes it's the latter.

Watch The Independents

Obama was never going to gain much traction with either Sutton or Stone. Politically, he has to worry more about people like Robert Baker, a self-described independent.

He voted for Obama last fall but is "terribly disappointed" in the proliferation of scandals that have broken since.

"The president is our highest office, and we hold it to a higher standard," says Baker. "Without knowing all the details yet, I would like to think he had his finger on what was going on around him, and it seems like he didn't."

Baker worries that most people aren't tuned in. "People tend to pay attention when it hits them in the pocketbook," he says.

Baker recently lost his job in the disaster restoration business, but he thinks most people are willing to cut the president some slack as the Dow Jones average rises and the economy picks up.

"With unemployment getting better and the housing market getting better, people are getting lazy and not paying attention," he says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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