In Scandals' Wake, Obama's Hardball Tactics Could Backfire

Josh Kraushaar

A hallmark of the Obama administration is its imperviousness to conventional Washington wisdom, a brash confidence that their way is the best way -- critics be damned. As a resident contrarian, I find that type of independent thinking can often be refreshing and liberating. But there's a thin line between confidence and cockiness – and the White House is treading awfully close to the latter.

By picking two loyal allies as national security adviser (Susan Rice) and ambassador to the UN (Samantha Power), Obama is taunting Republican critics who slammed Rice for her role in the Benghazi spin, derailing her prospects to become Secretary of State. While second terms often feature new faces and perspectives from the outside, the president has kept his inner circle tight. Combine that with his former top adviser trash-talking Republicans and media critics on Twitter, and the White House's push to pressure Republicans to fill vacancies on the DC Circuit Court, you'd think the president has weathered the worst of the scandal storm.

But there are fresh signs from two new, well-respected polls, that while Obama has faced down the scrutiny for now, the White House would be wise to anticipate headwinds -- and prepare accordingly. President Obama's 48 percent approval rating in the NBC/WSJ survey is stable, but his approval among independents dropped nine points since April to just 28 percent. A separate Bloomberg survey showed his overall approval rating down six points to 49 percent since February.

Contrary to the administration spin, the polling shows that a majority of Americans want congressional Republicans to investigate the trifecta of controversies. Even larger majorities said the administration's handling of Benghazi, the IRS scandal and subpoena of journalist phone records "raises doubts about the overall honesty and integrity" of the administration. By a 14-point margin, more Americans believe the IRS targeting is part of a "more widespread effort" rather than the wrongdoing of misguided individuals. Bloomberg found that a 47 percent plurality of voters believe Obama isn't telling the truth when he said he was unaware that the IRS was scrutinizing conservative groups. If there aren't any more revelations to uncover, the president could be home free. But Tuesday's congressional testimony from those individuals directly impacted suggests the story isn't going away.

And while economic data – and stock prices – indicate improving optimism among Americans, when asked, people say they’re not really feeling any better about things. In the NBC/WSJ poll, the right track/wrong track numbers are slightly better than 2011, but down from the winter of last year; Bloomberg found the wrong track number jumping six points in four months. The only silver lining for the White House is that more people believe they've avoided the worst of the recession, even as they assess their situation negatively. Most voters said they believe the future will be the same as the present – nothing worse, nothing better. That's hardly the sign of an economy boosting the president's (or his party's) fortunes in the future.

And while Obama is doubling down on his support for embattled Attorney General Eric Holder, he's one of the most unpopular figures in all of Washington – with his favorability comparable to that of reviled congressional Republicans. Of all the politicos tested in the NBC/WSJ poll, Holder easily ranked last, with 10 percent viewing him favorably, while 32 percent viewed him unfavorably.

So far, Obama's advisers have protected the boss effectively, giving him plausible deniability for all the allegations of malfeasance surrounding him. It's worked, as voters have turned sour on the administration, but not the president. But as the polling suggests, there are signs that if more uncomfortable facts emerge, Obama could find himself ill-served by a team that knows how to play hardball brilliantly, but struggles to reach out beyond that inner circle.