With his job-approval numbers plummeting, President Obama is trying to reclaim the advantage in Washington by convincing the public that congressional Republicans are obsessed with “phony” scandals such as Benghazi and the Internal Revenue Service at the expense of economic progress.
But that could prove to be a narrow hole to thread with the public.
The scandals already have contributed to Mr. Obama’s eroding public support as he prepares to do battle with House Republicans in September over budget cuts and raising the nation’s borrowing limit. A McClatchy-Marist poll on Tuesday found Mr. Obama’s job-approval rating has fallen to 41 percent, down from 50 percent in the same survey in April. It was his worst showing in the poll since he hit 39 percent in September 2011.
“He [Mr. Obama] can’t just keep turning to the economy as a convenient excuse to stop talking about stuff that he doesn’t want to talk about,” Republican strategist John Feehery. “The more he tries to do it, the less credible he is. I think he’s turned to the economy about 14 different times.”
In two speeches on the economy this week, Mr. Obama has lamented that lawmakers are engaged in partisan sideshows while he’s trying to focus on middle-class priorities.
“With an endless distraction of political posturing and phony scandals and Lord knows what, Washington keeps taking its eye off the ball. And that needs to stop,” Mr. Obama said Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.
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Of the many scandals from which to choose, the president didn’t specify which ones he considers “phony” — the administration’s “talking points” about the deaths of four Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Libya, the abuse of power by the IRS and the possible involvement of a political appointee, the disclosure of classified NSA surveillance programs, the Justice Department’s wide-ranging investigations of the media, or other controversies.
Mr. Obama has long characterized House Republicans’ probe of his administration’s response to the Benghazi terrorist attacks as a “sideshow.” And White House press secretary Jay Carney earlier this week described the IRS controversy as a “phony scandal,” although when pressed, he said investigations need “to get to the bottom” of what happened.
The White House’s talking points have Republicans seeing red.
“So whether you want to go Fast and Furious, Benghazi, IRS, NSA, Obamacare … people have begun to lose trust in the institutions of government. And if they want to use the word phony for that, they need to get out of Washington more and go to real America!” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, on Fox News Channel.
White House allies say Mr. Obama, by ridiculing Republicans’ focus on “manufactured” scandals, is trying to gain the upper hand for the autumn fiscal showdown.
“This is all about September,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley. “They’re trying to reframe the debate, downplay what was an obvious attempt by Republicans to keep these so-called scandals front and center, because they have no other agenda, while the White House continues to focus on jobs and the economy.”
One problem: the McClatchy poll found that only 37 percent of respondents approve of Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy. Fifty-six percent disapprove.
But House Republicans are an easy target of criticism for the president, in part because they are even less popular in polls. A Fox News poll in mid-July showed congressional Republicans with 22 percent approval, down from 24 percent in April.
Mr. Manley said the White House is determined to sell the public on the notion that congressional Republicans have overreached on the IRS scandal by “cherry-picking” evidence that highlights the agency’s targeting of conservative groups that sought tax-exempt status.
“Obviously there were abuses at the IRS that need to be dealt with, but additional reporting suggests that the issue wasn’t just with conservative groups but other groups were targeted as well,” he said. “The so-called IRS scandal has proven to be much more complex than House Republicans suggested; Benghazi, while obviously mistakes were made, is a figment of a right-wing press.”
Under attack from Democrats over earlier inquiries, the IRS’ inspector general said last week he is expanding his probe to see if the agency treated liberal groups the same way as conservative ones. Inspector General J. Russell George said he recently learned that the agency also used the word “progressive” as a key word for selecting applications for extra scrutiny.
The Washington Times also reported that Mr. George has reopened a probe into whether the tax records of GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell of Delaware were inappropriately accessed by a state official during her campaign in 2010.
The White House’s complaints have intensified since an IRS official testified last week that the agency’s abusive practices were directed from the Washington office of the IRS general counsel, William Wilkins, an Obama appointee.
The administration’s argument about the GOP exploiting the IRS abuses could prove difficult, especially given Mr. Obama’s forceful pronouncements about the scandal just two months ago, when he said he was “outraged.”
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you should be equally outraged at even the prospect that the IRS might not be acting with the kind of complete neutrality that we expect,” Mr. Obama said on May 16. “We’re also going to make sure that we gather up the facts, and hold accountable and responsible anybody who was involved in this. And I’m looking forward to working with Congress to fully investigate what happened.”