With the newest controversy over Justice Department subpoenas of Associated Press reporters’ and editors’ telephone records, President Obama and his administration find themselves drawing fire from three different directions. Last week’s stories indicating that the Internal Revenue Service targeted tea-party groups and other conservative organizations for investigation sent a shiver down the spines of those of us who lived in Washington 40 years ago during the Watergate scandal. Meanwhile, allegations about the lapses in security that led to the fatal attacks on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last year—as well as about the administration’s candor in the days after the attack—are getting new scrutiny. In the wake of these three developing stories, journalists typically quite sympathetic to the administration are raising questions about its performance. In fact, even reliably sycophantic reporters and commentators have joined the attack, and that’s a bad sign for any president.
Unfortunately, the overly broad subpoenas in the AP case distract from what could have been a legitimate and constructive debate over whether overly zealous journalists and news organizations hotly in pursuit of a “good story” can jeopardize vital intelligence activities aimed at preventing terrorist acts and uncovering terrorist networks. Whether the public is truly best served by the publication of such stories would be a good conversation to have, but it won’t happen in this case because the focus will be on the subpoenas.
Although an administration under siege is never a pretty sight, it’s more the rule than the exception during second presidential terms. It is a time when the novelty of a new president has fully worn off and the public becomes increasingly open to change. These second-term problems have become as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning. The only variation is the exact timing and nature—as well as the consequences.
But as much as congressional Republicans are enjoying their schadenfreude, they would be well advised to think long and hard about their next steps. Even the most cursory look at opinion polls or focus groups reveals that the public is convinced we have an ineffectual and out-of-touch Congress that spends too much time backbiting, grandstanding, and Monday-morning quarterbacking while the country’s problems fester. Arguably, showboating for the cameras and holding hearings are what Congress does best; the temptation is unavoidable.
Republicans would be much wiser to pursue a third option: Dig up as much damaging information as they can about the Obama administration and leak it to reporters they know will write tough stories that won’t be traced back to the source. That way, the public won’t see the GOP as being obsessed with attacking the other side and playing gotcha at the expense of the big issues facing the country—the ones voters really care about.Meanwhile, everyone in Washington will watch polls for signs of blood in the water, indications that the controversies or scandals—depending upon your perspective—are taking a political toll on Obama’s job-approval numbers.
Since mid-February, the Gallup Organization’s three-night moving average testing Obama’s approval ratings have always been between 47 percent and 51 percent; most weeks it’s between 48 percent and 50 percent. The three-night average through Tuesday night, May 14, put his approval at 47 percent, down 2 points from the three-night average from the day before. Watch these numbers over the coming days and you’ll be able to track if this is the beginning of a downward trend for Obama. One might expect three tough stories getting this much coverage to knock his ratings down at least a little. Even assuming that Obama’s numbers drop, the question then is by how much.
The lowest week of Gallup polling thus far for Obama was 40 percent, occurring in August and October of 2011. Arguably, he is due for a dip, given that each of his modern predecessors has dropped into the 30s or below. Presidents Ford, Reagan, and Clinton each hit a low point of 37 percent. President George W. Bush’s low ebb was 31 percent; Nixon’s was 27 percent; Carter’s was 28 percent; and George H.W. Bush’s was 29 percent.
For now, we just watch and wait to see which one—or more—of these issues takes on legs. If none does, will it be something else? History says something always happens in the second term.
This article appears in the May 18, 2013, edition of National Journal.