Repairing a Shaky Trust

Americans are losing faith in Washington.

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"The Presidency" column appears in U.S. News Weekly.

President Barack Obama's reputation as a competent leader could be eroded by the ongoing scandals in Washington. But what's really in jeopardy is something much larger and more important – trust in government.

This trust was very shaky to begin with. A Pew Research survey released last month found the public's view of Washington had fallen substantially, with only 28 percent saying they saw the federal government favorably, down from 33 percent a year earlier and 42 percent in July 2009, shortly after Obama took office. And this was before the current scandals hit with full force.

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Strategists of both major parties and political scientists say the Internal Revenue Service scandal could cause the most political harm, more than the ongoing controversies over the lethal attacks in Benghazi or the government's seizing of Associated Press phone records. That's because Americans are so familiar with the IRS. It's one of the most feared government agencies. In fact, the IRS is on the leading edge of concern for Americans who are worried about government abusing its power and running amok.

The IRS scandal hasn't hit Obama personally so far. His job approval ratings remain at about 50 percent, according to various polls, holding steady despite the controversies. But, experts say, White House officials aren't doing themselves or their boss any favors by their response to the scandal so far.

No one can be sure where the IRS mess will lead. It's still under investigation by Congress and the news media, and White House officials have put out differing versions of what happened and who knew about it. The central fact is that the IRS targeted conservative groups, including the tea party, for special scrutiny when these groups sought tax-exempt status. The critics ask: If the conservative groups are targets in this case, which groups or individuals are next?

There are other, larger issues involved, such as presidential hubris. Republican pollster Ed Goeas notes, "These presidents walk away from elections thinking they are smarter than the other side, and they believe everybody agrees with them." And when they return to governing, "there's a tendency to overreach," Goeas says. He sees that tendency in Obama now. Just as important, Obama is in a cycle where he talks about bipartisan cooperation one moment, then shifts to attacking the other side. This further undermines his credibility, Goeas and other Republicans say.

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More broadly, Obama needs to focus with greater intensity on fixing the economy, the top concern of most Americans. If not, his numbers and his influence will surely drop. "That's always going to be his Achilles' Heel – the overall economy," Goeas says.

But the scandals could easily distract both the president and Congress for a long time. Obama has tried to change the subject, but time and again he and his aides have been pulled back. And some of the new details have been unsettling. Last week, Carney said the president had been kept in the dark about the IRS misconduct even after senior aides, including White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, learned about it. "The judgment of the White House counsel was that this is not a matter that she should convey to the president," Carney told reporters. "This is not the kind of thing, when you have an ongoing investigation or an ongoing audit, that requires notification to the president, because what is important is that we wait until that kind of process is completed before we take action."

To put things in perspective, there have been worse abuses of the IRS in the past. President Richard Nixon and his aides engaged in a comprehensive effort to undermine opponents and used the IRS in that effort. But the consequence today could be similar – undermining Americans' faith in government itself. This could be especially harmful to Obama, who has been hoping to increase people's trust in the government, which will be responsible for implementing some of his major initiatives, ranging from the ongoing overhaul of the health care system to finding ways to limit climate change.

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Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker says this scandal could well contribute to the popular impression that whenever government does something, it goes badly. That perception could be very damaging to the goals of a president who is relying on government to do so much.

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