Poll: Americans see Benghazi, IRS as political footballs

Susan Page, USA TODAY5:05 p.m. EDT May 20, 2013

USA TODAY poll: Three of four Americans say the recent controversies will make it harder for Obama to get things done.

Story Highlights
Still, the president's approval rating is up 2 percentage points to 53%
Nearly six in 10 say the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms
In a showdown between the government and the news media, more than six in 10 Americans side with the media

WASHINGTON — Americans are divided over whether to believe the White House on controversies over the Libyan attack that killed a U.S. ambassador and the Internal Revenue Service targeting of Tea Party groups, but they overwhelmingly agree on this: The furors are going to make it harder for President Obama to get things done in his second term.

A USA TODAY poll taken by Princeton Survey Research finds nearly three of four Americans say the controversies will make it harder for the president to accomplish his goals; nearly a third say they will make it much harder. Just one in five believe they won't have an impact.

The nationwide poll, in the field from Thursday through Sunday, finds skepticism about some of Obama's explanations of what happened and his actions afterward. A 53% majority say the IRS decision to single out conservative groups for extra scrutiny before granting tax-exempt status was made for political reasons, something the administration flatly denies. By 50%-44%, they say Obama deserves at least a little of the blame, though the White House says he didn't know about it until the scandal was in the news.

On the other hand, even more of those surveyed are cynical about why Republicans are pursuing investigations into the controversies. Six in 10 say GOP hearings into the Benghazi attack that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead are being held more to score political points against the Democrats and Obama than to find ways to prevent future attacks. Even a third of Republicans say the hearings are driven by politics.

"With the Republicans clearly in a posture of driving a political agenda, there's a lot of risk for them, just as there's risk for the president," says Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who was among a group that met with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough last week to discuss how the administration should move forward.
President Obama and Dan Pfeiffer(Photo: Charles Dharapak, AP)

GOP pollster David Winston, an adviser to House Speaker John Boehner, points to the inclination by Americans to allot some of the blame for the IRS scandal to Obama. "It means they aren't buying the Pfeiffer narrative," he says, referring to the explanation delivered by White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer on five TV talk shows Sunday. Winston acknowledged GOP problems, too: "The public is looking at what's going on and says neither one of them is doing what's needed to address the problem."

The issues don't seem to be going away anytime soon.

Four congressional committees and the Justice Department are investigating the IRS. Douglas Shulman, a Bush appointee who headed the IRS during most of the questionable actions, is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee and Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Finance Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, and ranking Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah on Monday sent outgoing IRS commissioner Steven Miller a letter with 41 detailed questions about what transpired in the agency.

Pfeiffer says the controversies don't need to slow down work on other issues, including the push for an immigration overhaul and a budget deal.

"That's a question that only Republicans can answer," he said in an interview. "Immigration continues to progress along without much attention as all these issues were unfolding last week, and it didn't seem to slow things down at all. If Republicans use these as an excuse to delay the people's business, that's one thing. If they continue to work with us, that's another."


“It distracts [Obama] from other issues; obviously you've got to spend a fair amount of time on firefighting”
— Joseph Nye, presidential scholar
Harvard professor Joseph Nye, one of the nation's leading presidential scholars, dismisses as overblown comparisons to big scandals that bedeviled previous second-term presidents, such as the Iran-contra affair during the Reagan administration or the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon's tenure. "It's quite plausible a year from now or five years from now what we're seeing this week or two may turn out to be a blip rather than a major turning point," he says.

Still, the impact is nonetheless costly for Obama, he says.

"It distracts him from other issues; obviously you've got to spend a fair amount of time on firefighting," says Nye, whose new book is titled Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era. What's more, he says, "in the election in 2012, you gain a certain amount of momentum which gives you a degree of authority. This chips away or undercuts that political momentum."

The USA TODAY poll also asked about the disclosure that the Justice Department secretly had seized phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors while investigating a leak of classified information. In a showdown between the government and the news media, more than six in 10 Americans, 62%, say it is more important that the media be able to report stories they feel are in the national interest. Just 23% say it is more important that the government be able to censor news stories it feels threaten national security.

That is by far the highest level of support for the media in the 10 times the question has been asked over the past three decades in polls by Princeton Survey Research and Gallup. Only three previous times has a majority said it was more important to be able to report the story.

Those results reflect a swing by Republicans to the side of the press — possibly at least in part because doing so puts them at odds with the Democratic president. In 2006, the last time the question was asked, 53% of Republicans said it was more important that the government be able to censor news stories. Now, 53% say it's more important that the media be able to publish.

The poll of 1,002 adults by land line and cellphone has a margin of error of +/-3.6 percentage points.

Among other findings, those surveyed:

• Are divided over whether the Obama administration was involved in a political cover-up about the Benghazi attack; 40% see a coverup while 45% don't.

• Disapprove of Obama's handling of the attack and its aftermath by 44%-37%. His critics feel more intensity about the issue: 26% strongly disapprove, compared with 16% who strongly approve.

• Say the IRS action targeting conservative groups was done for political reasons, 53%-33%. Nineteen percent say Obama deserves a lot of the blame for it; 31% say he deserves a little.

• Nearly six in 10 say the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms, a line of attack that Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans have hammered as a theme that connects the furors. Fifty-eight percent call the government a threat — 35% call it a major threat, 23% a minor threat — while 37% say it's not a threat.


The confluence of controversies is increasing their impact. "The three of them put together lead to a sense that this is a bigger crisis than it in fact is," Nye says. "It means that many people in the public who don't understand the details of any of the issues will think, 'If there's smoke, there must be fire.'"

However, other surveys haven't shown them hurting Obama's approval rating, at least so far.

In a CNN/ORC poll taken Friday and Saturday, the president's approval rating was 53%, up 2 percentage points from the previous survey in early April. In the Gallup daily poll, Obama's approval rating Monday was 49%, in the same neighborhood it has been for a month. (His approval has ranged from 47%-52% in the past four weeks.)

"The general pattern with scandals is that the public doesn't care very much," says Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth who studies the impact and course of political scandals. "Only the most significant scandals move the needle on approval. The pattern is a collective shrug from the public, in part because the people who pay attention to political news already have made up their minds about the president one way or another."

That doesn't mean the controversies don't have an impact on presidents. "They matter," he cautions. "They clog up the news agenda and divert more of the interest of the media and the efforts of Congress into scandals and investigations instead of legislation."