Scandals Haven't Dented Obama's Job Approval Yet: Poll
A springtime of political turmoil has heightened public doubts about the Obama administration, but had only a modest impact so far on the president's standing, according to a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll.
The survey showed that simultaneous controversies over the Internal Revenue Service's treatment of Tea Party groups, Justice Department investigations of news leaks, and the Benghazi tragedy have taken a toll. In all three cases, solid majorities of American adults report increased doubt about "the overall honesty and integrity of the Obama administration."
Yet only a minority of Americans find Obama "totally" or "mainly" responsible for the problems. That helps explain why Obama's approval rating remains stable at 48 percent — statistically unchanged from 47 percent in April.
"Things get pretty hot in Washington, but the electorate is temperate," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducts the NBC/WSJ survey with his Democratic counterpart Peter Hart. "You can see the impact, but not a reframing of his standing."
Obama's job approval on handling the economy remains unchanged at 46 percent, while 49 percent disapprove, as Americans cautiously watch signs of economic improvement. The proportion of Americans expressing satisfaction with the economy has risen to 36 percent from 27 percent in January.
Only 33 percent of Americans express confidence that Obama has "the right set of goals and policies to improve the economy", and 58 percent say they believe the nation remains "in a recession" even as the economy keeps growing.
But that represents a decline from 76 percent who perceived a recession in May 2010 and 64 percent in December 2012. Some 21 percent point to the record-setting recent performance of the Dow Jones Industrial Average as evidence that the economy is doing better, though 68 percent see benefits for "corporations and the wealthy…but not necessarily the economy overall."
The NBC-WSJ pollsters said economic improvement was not, however, the reason Obama's standing remains relatively unscathed so far. They pointed instead to the president's staunch backing from minorities, women and younger Americans whose views of Obama don't hinge on economic fluctuations.
The Republican Party continues to suffer from a weak public image, though it has improved slightly since earlier this year. Some 32 percent express favorable attitudes toward the GOP, while 41 percent are negative; for Democrats, the corresponding numbers are 39 percent positive, 37 percent negative.
By 45 percent to 42 percent, Americans say they want the 2014 elections to produce a Congress controlled by Democrats rather than Republicans. The telephone survey of 1,000 adults, conducted May 30-June 2, carries a margin for error of 3.1 percentage points.
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As for the various Republican investigations of the Obama administration, half of Americans call them "justified and addressing legitimate concerns," while 42 percent dismiss them as "unfair partisan attacks." A 43 percent plurality calls IRS misconduct "a more widespread effort" to target conservative groups, while 29 percent call it "a case of a few officials acting on their own."
The IRS recorded the most dismal ratings on a list of American institutions; just 19 percent expressed a positive view of the tax-collection agency, while 50 percent expressed a negative view. Those ratings were slightly better, however, than the agency recorded in 1997, a year before Congress and the Clinton administration agreed on "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" legislation to overhaul the IRS.
The public's overall view of the competence of the Obama administration stands only slightly better than its view of President George W. Bush's administration in March 2006, after the public uproar over the handling of Hurricane Katrina. Some 57 percent call the administration "very" or "somewhat" competent, compared to 53 percent who said that of the Bush administration then.
The key question for Obama in the weeks ahead is whether public doubts begin doing greater damage to his personal reputation. Two-thirds of Americans continue to give the second-term president high marks for "being easy-going and likable."
But his high marks for "having strong leadership qualities" dropped to 46 percent from 53 percent in January; for "being honest and straightforward," they dropped to 42 percent from 47 percent.
"Honesty is the heart" of a politician's standing, Hart cautioned.
—By CNBC's John Harwood. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnJHarwood