Do You Trust This Man?

Like Bush before him, President Obama faces a credibility crisis.

National Journal

There is a common element to the so-called Obama scandals — the IRS targeting of conservatives, the fatal attack in Benghazi, and widespread spying on U.S. journalists and ordinary Americans. It is a lack of credibility.

In each case, the Obama administration has helped make controversies worse by changing its stories, distorting facts, and lying.

The abuse of trust may be taking a toll on President Obama's reputation.

A CNN/ORC poll of 1,104 adult Americans June 11-13 shows the president's job approval rating at 45 percent, down 8 percentage points in a month.

Among young voters, only 48 percent approve of the president's performance, a 17-point decline since the last CNN/ORC poll. These are the president's most loyal supporters, and the future of American politics.

The drop in presidential approval is across the board, affecting Obama's standing on every issue measured: The economy (down 2 points); foreign affairs (down 5 points); federal budget (down 4 points); terrorism (down 13 points); and immigration (down 4 points).

Asked for the first time by CNN/ORC about the president's handling of "government surveillance of U.S. citizens," 61 percent of Americans said they disapprove.

Greg Sargent, a liberal columnist for The Washington Post, said via Twitter that these results seemed at odds with others showing strong public support for the National Security Agency's spying programs.

I don't think there is anything odd about it. Voters don't judge their leaders on the basis of one or two policies, and their decisions often seem at odds with what elites consider to be their "self-interests." Especially when it comes to the presidency, Americans tend to trust their guts, and in Obama's case, lately, something doesn't feel right. Can I trust this guy?

A month into Obama's presidency, 74 percent of Americans answered "yes," saying the terms "honest and trustworthy" applied to him. As you would expect, the percentage dropped a few months later but had remained steady at about 60 percent since November 2009, according to CNN/ORC.

This month, only 49 percent of Americans say Obama is honest and trustworthy. That is a 9-point drop since May 17-18.

This should worry Obama and his team because it has echoes of what destroyed the Bush presidency. After waging war in Iraq on false pretenses and trying to spin his way out of the Hurricane Katrina debacle, Bush saw his trustworthy numbers tumble.

Voters stopped listening to Bush. Political allies abandoned him (as I wrote here in 2005). His presidency was effectively over (as I wrote here in 2007).

Obama can take solace in the fact that the CNN/ORC survey is just one poll. Others may show that his credibility has not slipped, although Democratic pollsters tell me privately the CNN/ORC findings reflect their own.

If this poll is part of a trend, Obama still may be able to recover. But he would need to take immediate steps to show accountability, transparency, and credibility.

No more slow-walking the truth as the White House did with the cause of the Benghazi attacks and with the names of West Wing officials notified about IRS targeting.

No more lies, such as the IRS claiming for months that the targeting did not take place, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper denying the existence of the NSA programs weeks before they were revealed.

No more doublespeak such as the president earnestly claiming, "Your duly elected representatives have consistently been informed" of the NSA programs. He knew that wasn't quite true, or should have known.

(RELATED: "How Obama Scandals Threaten to Kill Good Government")

Obama needs to take action, too.

The IRS scandal needs to be aggressively investigated, with the seizure of White House and Obama campaign e-mails as well as interviews, under oath, with members of Obama's team. Those responsible for the abuse must be punished.

The USA Patriot Act needs to be debated and amended, and the public needs to be part of that debate. (Sargent has some suggestions along those lines here.)

There is no time to waste. Obama already has earned the ignominious distinction of running against Bush's surveillance programs, then adapting it as president, and expanding it. Does he also want to repeat his predecessor's credibility crisis?