A couple of months ago, political analysts discussed Barack Obama’s increased political capital after winning re-election and increasing Democratic seats on Capitol Hill. These days, pundits like Glenn Thrush and Jennifer Epstein at Politico are openly wondering whether Obama and the avalanche of scandals have turned him into a liability. The scandals have eroded Obama’s greatest political asset — trust:
“Trust me” is President Barack Obama’s preferred mode of action in times of crisis — and his go-to comment to nervous staffers has always been some version of “Relax, I got this.”
But that message is an increasingly hard sell for Obama in his second term, following revelations that the man who once railed against the Bush administration over civil liberties abuses has himself surreptitiously quarterbacked the greatest expansion of electronic surveillance in U.S. history.
Obama’s call for trust, patience and near blanket secrecy is increasingly falling on deaf ears in his own party, spurring a backlash among Democrats who say it’s time for the “most transparent president in history” to provide the American people with a comprehensive explanation of a secret program that dragnets most phone records and much of the Internet.
It’s not just the scandals, either, but the administration’s response to them. When did Obama find out about the IRS targeting conservatives? When he picked up the newspaper — even though his chief of staff and White House counsel had briefed the West Wing on the scandal weeks earlier. He didn’t know that his close friend Eric Holder had named a Fox News reporter as a co-conspirator in espionage until that hit the newsstands, too. What did Obama do during the terrorist attack on Benghazi? He was “fully briefed,” but the White House refuses to say where he was and what specifically he did after the initial briefing. The administration managed to offer pictures of the Commander in Chief on the job during the Osama bin Laden raid, but all we get is a shrug when things went wrong in Benghazi.
You can’t say “trust me” and “I know nothing” at the same time, and expect people to buy either line. When the best defense the White House can offer during Scandalabra is incompetence, the natural progression will be to mistrust either motives or ability, both of which create big problems for Obama — and his approval ratings decline on leadership qualities make that plain.
One test of Obama’s political capital will come this month in Massachusetts, where Obama will campaign for Ed Markey right before the June 25th special election:
Trailed by controversy, President Barack Obama is pressing ahead with efforts to boost Democrats Wednesday in Boston and Miami, raising questions about whether the second-term president will be more asset or liability to his party in the coming election season.
Fulfilling a pledge to work harder to help elect Democrats than he did in years past, Obama visits Massachusetts to rally voters ahead of a nationally watched special Senate election. He stops in Miami in the evening to raise cash for the Democratic Party at two private homes.
Each stop lends Obama’s proven ability to energize Democrats to the party’s cause this year and next, with control of Congress and Obama’s second-term agenda at stake. But the visits also create opportunities for Republicans eager to link their Democrat opponents to the Obama administration’s recent troubles, like a string of high-profile controversies involving the Internal Revenue Service and government intelligence-gathering.
Even in Democrat-friendly Massachusetts, there are signs of modest declines in his popularity as Republicans seize on the White House’s struggles in the special election to replace John Kerry and in nascent campaigns across the nation.
He tried that with Martha Coakley, too, and ended up with egg on his face in Massachusetts, even without all of the scandal baggage. Markey’s doing his best to distance himself from it even as Obama makes plans to join him on the stump:
Rep. Ed Markey, the Democratic hopeful in Massachusetts, last week criticized the government’s massive collection of personal phone and Internet records, even as Obama defended the practice. The disclosures about the National Security Agency surveillance came with the administration already facing questions over the IRS’ improper targeting of conservative groups, the seizure of journalists’ phone records and the handling of the attack in Libya last year that left four Americans dead.
Markey’s got a lead in Massachusetts in the single digits, so this does present a risk. If the scandals worsen, Obama might end up doing more damage to Markey than to Gabriel Gomez, and in a special election turnout where the opposition has reason to be more engaged, that could end up being significant.