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The Growing Stench of Corruption

Two new polls–one from Bloomberg National Poll, the other from the Wall Street Journal/NBC News–show a clear erosion in the public’s trust in Barack Obama’s honest and integrity.

Nearly half of those surveyed–47 percent–believe the president isn’t telling the truth when he says he didn’t know the IRS was giving extra scrutiny to the applications of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. More than half–55 percent–say the IRS actions raise questions about the administration’s “overall honesty and integrity.” Fifty-eight percent believe the administration’s handling of the Benghazi consulate attacks raises questions about the honesty of the White House, while the same number say the Department of Justice’s subpoenaing of reporter e-mails and phone records in its leak investigations raise concerns.

For roughly half the public to believe Mr. Obama is lying at this relatively early stage in the congressional investigation is quite high, especially since at this point there’s no direct evidence showing the president knew about these scandals prior to May of this year. (Which isn’t to say the IRS and the Treasury Department didn’t know about the IRS’s nefarious activities long before the 2012 election or that the White House chief of staff and White House counsel didn’t know about the scandal prior to when Obama says he learned of it.)

This could well have a corrosive effect on the Obama presidency. For one thing, it means the president’s strongest political asset–the fact that many Americans have come to like and trust Obama–is beginning to crumble. For another, it means the president’s words will become devalued. Increasingly the claims and denials by Obama and his administration will, on a range of matters, be ignored, since he’s an untrustworthy man. And the growing stench of corruption will not only harm the president; it will hurt his party as well. 

“Obama’s incredibly shrinking presidency is a reminder that politics is a transactional business,” George Will recently wrote, “that trust is the currency of the transactions and that the currency has been debased.”

Scandals fall on a continuum, from low-grade ones (like “travelgate”) to more serious ones (like Iran-Contra, the Lewinsky affair, and Watergate). What determines how serious a scandal is depends on the nature of what was done and whether people in authority, including senior administration officials and/or the president, were involved.

The abuse of power by the IRS is an extraordinary breach of trust, and right now, because of stonewalling, we don’t know all who were involved. But sooner or later, with Congress investigating these scandals, we hopefully will. The lethal attacks on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi involved the death of four Americans, including the first American ambassador since the 1970s, and misleading the public in the aftermath of the attacks. And the Department of Justice’s targeting of reporters is unprecedented, with the attorney general at the center of the scandal and now being investigated for misleading Congress.

This is not the kind of alignment you want to have early in a second term.


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