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BIRNBAUM: Obama’s noticeable overreach

Threats to civil liberties are punishing the president in the polls

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Historians may look back at this point in the Obama administration and ask the question: When did the lines cross? When did the president's job-approval rating dip below his national job-disapproval rating?

The answer is the week after Memorial Day.

This reversal followed many months of the opposite finding — that more voters approved of the president's performance in office than disapproved, according to Real Clear Politics.

So, why the switch?

The reason, arguably, is that the public was given concrete reasons to question the president's drive to grow government and to give it more power.

Washington had a newsy spring, and many events could have caused the change in national polling, which, by the way, persists to this day. The biggest flurry of news leading up to this period, though, was the revelation that the Obama administration had collected phone records from The Associated Press and had authorized the surveillance of a journalist, Fox News Channel reporter James Rosen.

After a brief lull on the general topic of government snooping, Edward Snowden gave his evidence of broad spying on millions of Americans to newspapers, and that National Security Agency surveillance story exploded. The lines of approval and disapproval in the polls continued to diverge.

Both consecutive sets of revelations were important in and of themselves. They illustrated a broad overreach by the federal government that threatens civil liberties.

They also demonstrated a larger point. The government that President Obama is eager to give more authority to can easily misuse that power if it's not prevented from doing so. Polling appears to show that the public certainly thinks so.

On the specific issue of NSA surveillance, a Gallup poll in mid-June showed that Americans opposed the government surveillance programs 53 percent to 37 percent. Other polls showed similar splits.

It doesn't take much creativity to imagine why revelations about government spying might have stirred real anxiety and lasting doubts about the Obama presidency.

The president and his party have directly appealed to American voters to trust them to improve the economy and correct inequities in society by stepping up the use of government. They've done so repeatedly by, among other things, expanding health care for Americans and increasing taxes on rich people.

Average Americans have and will benefit from those changes, and the president never ceases to remind voters about it.

The surveillance story — along with reports about the increased use of drones — also shows that the Obama administration has taken this government-can-help-you stance to indefensible levels.

Populism can easily lead to a kind of paternalism in government that can easily go too far. The surveillance stories raise that specter, and the public has clearly noticed.

Also noteworthy is the lack of reaction in the polls to gridlock and, let's say it, incompetence in Washington. The president was not being heavily penalized by the public for the conspicuous lack of activity in the nation's capital during the first five months of the year. Congress' poll rating took the brunt of the hit for that.

But when government was shown to be intentionally diminishing people's freedom, that was when voters took notice and began to express more resentment toward the president.

Past presidents also have seen their popularity dip as they approached the middle of the first year of their second terms. Mr. Obama might have simply reached that not-so-magic moment in his swan-song term.

The apparent instigation for the change is worth noting, especially by Republicans who have been struggling to find their voices.

Politics, like so many other things in life, moves in cycles. Its trends ebb and flow. We finally may be seeing the turning of the tide on the issue of big government.

The opposition party now has an opening to appeal to a broader public. Its resurgent leave-us-alone faction has a chance to win popular support as long as it doesn't overreach.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

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