The story of a month of D.C. scandals and scandal-wannabes in a nutshell: though confidence in the administration's honesty is low, Obama's approval rating is steady — in part because voters don't see his hand in any questionable activity. Or, perhaps, people have only a vague sense of how the controversies differ. People largely see the three issues — the IRS targeting Tea Party organizations, the Department of Justice subpoenaing media records, and the State Department's behavior after Benghazi — in the same light, suggesting that the air of "scandal" may be the public's main impression.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released today is one of the first to combine assessments of the current controversies with an historic look at voters' approval of the president. In that way, it's revelatory — as the Journal outlined this morning. (It is frustrating, however, that the poll doesn't offer a breakdown by political party, making it hard to get a sense for movement among different political groups.)
Here's the first topline: Over the past year, attitudes on Obama's job performance have been pretty steady. During the campaign, he hit a high point of those who viewed his performance as positive (53 percent in December), but from last summer to this summer, it's been fairly steady, just under 50 percent.
The key graph from this poll is the one that follows. Voters were asked (using much more specific language than is represented below) the extent to which they viewed the three controversies as casting doubts on the administration's honesty. In all three cases, the results were basically the same: over half of respondents felt that they did. Interestingly, the controversy about which voters felt most strongly was Benghazi.
(It's worth noting that the question posed in the poll is predicated on the existence of doubts. In other words, it asks, "Do you think that [ISSUE] raises doubts or does not raise doubts," which could influence responses.)
Voters did, however, offer a differentiation between their feelings about the administration's honesty and the role of the president. In none of the three situations did a majority of voters think Obama was primarily or completely responsible. On the IRS targeting issue, only a third of voters felt the president played a significant role.
The poll broke out the president's role in the IRS scandal in particular. Despite the data above, a plurality of respondents thought the targeting of Tea Party groups represented a "widespread effort," though apparently not one that included the president.
Most voters see the issues as a setback for the president — although this question preceded questions about the controversies. The majority consider any setback to be temporary or non-existent.
The poll included an interesting point of historical comparison. Assessments of Obama's competence nearly mirror views of Bush's competence in March of 2006. (At that point, Gallup had Bush's favorability rating at about 36 percent.)
In what might come as a relief to Republican members of Congress, a majority of poll respondents consider their investigations of the issues to be valid.
Not that those investigations are likely to be curtailed anytime soon. While the president hasn't been affected significantly yet, it's possible he still could be.
Making the poll's most revelatory response one that came as part of a set of questions on specific aspects of Obama's capability. The poll asked whether or not the president would be able to change the culture of Washington. Here's how people responded in April 2009, shortly after Obama took office, compared to now.
That decreased confidence is clearly warranted.