Red-faced Republicans, circling and preparing to pounce on a second-term Democratic president they loathe, do not respect, and certainly do not fear. Sound familiar? Perhaps reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s second term, after the Monica Lewinsky story broke? During that time, Republicans became so consumed by their hatred of Clinton and their conviction that this event would bring him down that they convinced themselves the rest of the country was just as outraged by his behavior as they were. By the way, what was Clinton’s lowest Gallup job-approval rating in his second term, throughout the travails of investigations and impeachment? It was 53 percent. The conservative echo machine had worked itself into such a frenzy, the GOP didn’t realize that the outrage was largely confined to the ranks of those who never voted for Clinton anyway.
These days, the country is even more polarized, and the conservative echo chamber is louder than ever before. Many conservatives made it all the way to Election Day last November unaware that their White House nominee was falling short. How could Mitt Romney possibly lose when everyone they knew was voting for him? Except that he did lose, and it wasn’t even a very close race. Five other post-World War II presidential elections had closer outcomes.
The simple fact is that although the Republican sharks are circling, at least so far, there isn’t a trace of blood in the water. A new CNN/ORC survey of 923 Americans this past Friday and Saturday, May 17-18, pegged Obama’s job-approval rating at 53 percent, up a statistically insignificant 2 points since their last poll, April 5-7, which was taken before the Benghazi, IRS, and AP-wiretap stories came to dominate the news and congressional hearing rooms. His disapproval rating was down 2 points since that last survey.
In Gallup’s tracking poll, Obama’s average job-approval rating so far this year is 50 percent. For this past week, May 13-19, his average was 49 percent, the same as the week before. The most recent three-day moving average, through Sunday, May 19, was also 49 percent. Over the past two weeks, even as these three stories/scandals have dominated the news, they have had precisely zero effect on the president’s job-approval numbers. His ratings are still bouncing around in the same narrow range they have been for weeks.
Maybe that will change. Maybe these allegations will start getting traction with voters. But it might just be that Americans are more focused on an economy that is gradually coming out of the longest and deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Most economists say the current quarter will show a slowdown in economic growth from the first quarter’s 2.5 percent pace, but they expect the economy to be stronger in the second half of this year. People may be encouraged by housing prices rising and the stock market setting record highs—and their retirement accounts may actually be looking better. The University of Michigan’s widely watched Consumer Sentiment Index is at the highest level since 2007, before the recession. The Conference Board’s more volatile Consumer Confidence Index is also generally moving up, although it isn’t at the record level of the Michigan index. The National Federation of Independent Business’s Index of Small Business Optimism, which took a deep plunge after the election, increased last month and is on an upward trend since the beginning of the year. Maybe the people and businesses polled have written off Washington as a political cesspool, and so these stories don’t affect them much. Perhaps they see this town as a place that can’t seem to get anything right.
One wonders how long Republicans are going to bark up this tree, perhaps the wrong tree, while they ignore their own party’s problems, which were shown to be profound in the most recent elections. Clearly none of these recent issues has had a real impact on voters yet. Republicans seem to be betting everything on them, just as they did in 1998—about which even Newt Gingrich (who was House speaker that year) commented recently to NPR, “I think we overreached in ’98.”
Republicans and conservatives who are so consumed by these “scandals” should ask themselves why, despite wall-to-wall media attention and the constant focus inside the Beltway—some are even talking about grounds for impeachment—Obama’s job-approval needle hasn’t moved. The CNN/ORC poll suggests that people are aware of and watching the news, but they aren’t reacting, at least not yet. Clearly Republicans hope the public will begin to respond. But at what point do they decide that maybe voters might be more interested in other issues or worries than about politicians on one side pointing fingers and throwing allegations at those on the other side? At what point might the GOP conclude that it is just digging the hole a little deeper?