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First Thoughts: Warning signs for Obama

NBC/WSJ poll shows Obama has absorbed the punch from the trio of controversies… But it also contains warning signs for him -- he can’t afford any more punches… What’s keeping his overall numbers steady… Good news, bad news on the economy… Down on American institutions… On Chris Christie, bipartisanship, and that NJ special election… Obama to tap Susan Rice as national security adviser… And Mr. Smith does go to Washington.

*** Warning signs for Obama: One of Barack Obama’s best attributes as a politician has been his ability to take a punch -- or several. Think of Jeremiah Wright and the Hillary-McCain tag team during the spring of ’08. Or the debt-ceiling debacle in the summer of ‘11. Or the reaction to the president’s first debate in the ’12 race. According to our new NBC/WSJ poll, President Obama has absorbed the political punch from the trio of controversies (IRS/Benghazi/leak investigations) that have hit his administration in the last few weeks. His overall job-approval rating stands at 48%, up 1 point since April, and is fav/unfav rating is at 47%-40%, which is essentially unchanged since that last poll. But there are also warning signs that he’s gone a bit wobbly from the punch and can’t afford any more missteps; that job rating is not as strong or steady as it looks when you lift the hood. For example, Obama’s numbers among independent respondents have declined -- just 28% approve of his job, which is down from 41% in February and 37% in April. What’s more, he’s also seen an erosion in his numbers on presidential qualities (like being a strong leader, being honest and straightforward, and changing business as usual in Washington), although they’re above where they were after the debt-ceiling fight in 2011. The president’s ability to push Congress publicly to get some of his agenda passed will be curtailed if he can’t improve those numbers with political independents. 

*** What’s keeping his numbers steady: However, two things have appeared to keep his overall numbers steady. One, his base is still with him: 88% of African Americans, 63% of Latinos, 57% of 18 to 34 year olds, and 52% of women approve of his job. Two, most Americans don’t DIRECTLY fault the president for the controversies. Just 41% hold Obama “totally” or “mainly” responsible for the Benghazi attack; 37% say the same of his culpability in the Justice Department’s subpoena of reporters’ phone records; and only 33% directly blame him for the IRS’s targeting of conservative-sounding groups. And there’s a partisan divide to these numbers: Fewer than one-quarter of Democrats hold Obama directly responsible for these three controversies, versus a majority of Republicans who do so -- including 68% for the Benghazi attack. That said, 50% of Americans -- including half of independents -- believe that Republicans in Congress are justified in their investigations into the Obama administration; 42% disagree, arguing that GOP inquiries are simply partisan attacks. For the most part, hard-core supporters and opponents of the president are viewing the controversies through their own political beliefs.

*** Good news, bad news on the economy: The NBC/WSJ poll also contains some brighter news for the administration when it comes to the economy. While only 36% say they’re satisfied with the state of the U.S. economy, that’s the highest number on this question since 2006. What’s more, the percentage believing the United States is still mired in an economic recession is at its lowest level since Obama became president. (Technically, the recession ended in 2009.) But if the public has a slightly brighter outlook about the economy, it doesn’t appear to be giving Obama any credit. Just 33% say they are either “extremely” or “quite” confident that the president has the right set of goals and policies to improve the economy. What’s more, nearly seven-in-10 respondents say that the Dow Jones Industrial Average hitting new highs is an indication that corporations and the wealthy are doing better -- but not the economy overall. By the way, it’s worth nothing that, for the 42nd straight survey, more folks tell us the country is headed in the WRONG direction than those who believe the country is on the RIGHT track.  

*** Down on American institutions: And the public continues to sour on many of America’s largest institutions. A combined 67% have either a “great deal” or “quite of bit” of confidence in the U.S. military, which is currently under fire for allegations of sexual assault against females. But that percentage is down from 76% in May 2012. In addition, 29% have a lot of confidence in the automobile industry (up 1 point from May 2012); just 17% have confidence in the federal government (up 1 point); only 16% have confidence in the national news media (up 1 point); and 12% have confidence in large corporations (down five points from May ’12). And just 10% of the public has confidence in the IRS.

*** On Chris Christie, bipartisanship, and that NJ special election: Given this pessimism about American institutions and the government itself, here is perhaps the most striking finding from the entire poll: Bipartisanship does get rewarded. Per the poll, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie enjoys nearly equal appeal among Democrats, Republicans and even independents: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: 40% of Republicans, 41% of indies, and 43% of Democrats say they view the Republican governor in a positive light. By comparison, 84% of Democrats in the same poll view Obama favorably, versus just 11% of Republicans who do. Even Hillary Clinton is seen as a polarizing figure -- 83% of Democrats view her positively, compared with just 15% of Republicans. The potential warning sign for Christie and 2016, however, is that Republicans view someone like Jeb Bush more favorably (48%-7%) than Christie (40%-16%). As far as yesterday’s news of Christie setting an Oct. 2013 date for the special election to replace the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), the decision angered national Republicans (who wanted the interim Senate pick to remain through 2014) and New Jersey Democrats (who wanted the GOV and SEN contest to be on the same ballot). But it pleased Senate Majority Harry Reid (who likely gets a Democratic senator back after October) and New Jersey Republicans (who want strong coattails from Christie in the Nov. 2013 election). Make no mistake: Christie’s decision yesterday was in the best interest of Chris Christie, and that interest is in having LARGE coattails to win down the ballot in New Jersey.  

*** Obama to tap Susan Rice as national security adviser: At 2:15 pm ET, we’ve learned, President Obama will announce that national security adviser Tom Donilon is stepping down, and that he’s replace Donilon with UN Ambassador Susan Rice. And NBC’s Peter Alexander reports that Obama will nominate former foreign-policy adviser Samantha Power to be UN ambassador. Obama tapping Rice as national security adviser -- a position that doesn’t need Senate confirmation -- will ruffle some Republicans who will shout, “Benghazi!!!” But those released Benghazi talking-points emails make it clear that Rice wasn’t responsible for crafting them. Also, Rice’s loudest Benghazi critics often forget that she’s closer to John McCain and Lindsey Graham when it comes to the use of American power. And folks, don’t calls this a shakeup: That Donilon was going to step down in the second term and that Rice was going to replace him was perhaps the worst-kept secret in Washington. As for Power, she does face Senate confirmation, but she should have a fairly easy time as she has quietly been reaching out to key Senate Republicans for months. One thing Power will have to deal with today: Everyone bringing up her infamous “monster” comment about Hillary Clinton during the ‘08 campaign. The two patched things up a long time ago, but the two aren’t exactly close. 

*** Mr. Smith does go to Washington: As expected, Republicans easily triumphed in the contest to fill the congressional seat that ex-Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) vacated. Roll Call: “State Speaker Pro Tem Jason Smith won the special election in Missouri’s 8th District on Tuesday night, keeping the conservative territory in GOP hands. Smith defeated state Rep. Steve Hodges, 68 percent to 27 percent.” 

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