President Obama's allies are alternately wincing over, or shaking their heads at, the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act and its website, as well as disclosures that U.S. intelligence agencies spied on some of our closest allies. Many of the president's supporters are probably wishing they could avoid watching news programs altogether, hoping the damaging reports will just go away. The eavesdropping on the cell-phone conversations of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande (the latter heading the only European nation supportive of the initial U.S. plan for airstrikes on Syria) has been particularly hard to defend because it puts the United States (and Obama) in an enormously awkward position.
What makes these problems more troublesome than some other controversies is that they go to the question of Obama's competence, rather than to differences of policy or ideology. On policy disputes, one side may like a decision and the other may dislike it, often resulting in a political wash. However, competence issues cut across the partisan and ideological spectrum, and they can have a real impact on independents and moderates. These voters, who by definition don't look at issues and events through a partisan or ideological prism, are normally comfortable standing behind the proverbial plate, calling balls and strikes as they see them. They usually don't root for one side or the other.
While it is certainly understandable that no president is clued in on all of the sources and methods of various intelligence agencies, the fervor surrounding the surveillance issue has risen to the point of comedic fodder. On Monday night, Daily Show host Jon Stewart framed the White House line that Obama was "out of the loop," or unaware of the surveillance of allies, by noting, "There appear to be very few loops he's in." Why was the National Security Agency or any U.S. intelligence agency eavesdropping on Merkel? In truth, the answer to an age-old question, cleaned up for this publication, applies here: "Why does a dog lick his private parts?" The answer is always, "Because he can."
In this case, the intelligence agencies acted because they can: They have the technological capability to listen in on Merkel's calls or, for that matter, anyone else's, and they have no specific orders to refrain from such activity. The possibility that the program could become public and create real problems in the U.S. relationship with one of our most trusted friends doesn't appear to have been considered by whomever made this decision. In fairness, it is doubtful whether any political appointee of this administration, or even the previous one, when the surveillance apparently started, gave the green light for it or was even aware that agencies were doing this for a long time. Yet that makes little difference at this point.
Doubts about competence inflict damage, particularly if they are followed by other incidents that reinforce those doubts and by a vigilant opposition party flagging these miscues, as Republicans can be counted on to do here. Doubts about competence eat at enthusiasm among your base and alienate the moderates and independents who are really the ones determining whether a president has strong job-approval ratings (and note that high ratings translate into clout on Capitol Hill and, to a certain extent, around the world).
Any president can generally count on very good, if not terrific, job-approval numbers from members of his party and on bad or awful numbers from members of the opposition party. The question for a Republican president isn't whether he will have good numbers from fellow Republicans and among conservatives, but rather whether he will have terrific numbers among independents. Same goes for a Democratic president.
And Obama is no exception. For the week of Oct. 21 to Oct. 27, Gallup polling found that Obama's job approval was 80 percent among Democrats, just a touch above his September average of 79 percent; among Republicans, it was 10 percent, somewhat lower than the 12 percent in September. Among liberals, Obama's approval rating was 74 percent, slightly above his 71 percent for September; among conservatives, it was 22 percent, just below the 23 percent last month. None of these numbers are particularly remarkable.
It's always more interesting to watch the numbers among independents and moderates, because their views are much less anchored in partisanship or ideology. Among independents, Obama's job-approval rating was 36 percent, about the same as the 37 percent for September; among moderates, it was 47 percent, a little bit below the 50 percent for September. While it would certainly be reasonable to expect Obama's numbers to dip a little among partisans and ideologues in reaction to recent events, those numbers aren't likely to move as much as those from the independents and moderates.
Coming on the heels of the Republican Party's self-inflicted wounds caused by its handling of the government shutdown and the near-default on the national debt, Obama's troubles take some of the pressure off the GOP. They make Republicans somewhat less defensive than they would otherwise be under these circumstances. Watch the numbers among independents and moderates; their verdicts will determine how bad this problem is for Obama and how much lasting damage it could inflict.