Commentary Magazine


Public Is Skeptical of Obama on IRS Scandal

Today one more poll joins the two that Pete wrote about yesterday in offering us the IRS scandal from the American voters’ point of view. And it only confirms the perception problem the Obama White House now has. “For roughly half the public to believe Mr. Obama is lying at this relatively early stage in the congressional investigation is quite high,” Pete wrote, “especially since at this point there’s no direct evidence showing the president knew about these scandals prior to May of this year.”

The latest poll, conducted by the New York Times and CBS, shows not only that a majority thinks the IRS was wrong to target conservatives but that nearly seven in 10 believe it was driven by political motivations. Additionally, 44 percent think the Obama administration was involved. Only a quarter of respondents think the IRS acted appropriately, which is still too high for comfort but not nearly high enough to make the story go away. And key to keeping interest in the story going–aside from the chilling testimony of the IRS’s victims–is the fact that Americans don’t believe they are being told the whole truth about the scandal. And there’s a good reason for that: they aren’t. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

Two Internal Revenue Service employees in the agency’s Cincinnati office told congressional investigators that IRS officials in Washington helped direct the probe of tea-party groups that began in 2010.

Transcripts of the interviews, viewed Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal, appear to contradict earlier statements by top IRS officials, who have blamed lower-level workers in Cincinnati.

Elizabeth Hofacre said her office in Cincinnati sought help from IRS officials in the Washington unit that oversees tax-exempt organizations after she started getting the tea-party cases in April 2010. Ms. Hofacre said Carter Hull, an IRS lawyer in Washington, closely oversaw her work and suggested some of the questions asked applicants.

“I was essentially a front person, because I had no autonomy or no authority to act on [applications] without Carter Hull’s influence or input,” she said, according to the transcripts.

The IRS higher-ups and the administration have tripped themselves up by reacting to each revelation as if no other information about the scandal would ever be revealed. A couple of weeks ago–which is a long time in the life of this scandal, considering the pace of revelations–Politico filed an amusing story at what at that time was “the fifth iteration of the Obama administration’s account of events,” paying special attention to the evolving list of people in the administration who knew about the IRS targeting before it was revealed by Lois Lerner.

The more significant mistake was not being forthcoming in which figures in the White House–which turned out to include the president’s chief of staff–knew of the IRS targeting before it was made public. That gives the public the impression that the administration is hiding something–and if the administration is hiding something, and the president’s chief of staff knew about the targeting, it’s getting difficult for the public not to wonder whether the president is being truthful about what he knew, and when.

That explains the poll numbers showing that although the president has not been tied directly to the scandal, he’s struggling to convince the public that he’s not somehow involved. Additionally, we now know that of course it wasn’t a couple of rogue agents who were overwhelmed by a flood of conservative applications and tried to simplify the process; the targeting was overseen by Washington and when they initiated it there was no flood of applicants. The IRS hasn’t been honest, and neither has the administration.

This perception problem isn’t helped, moreover, by the reaction of some Democrats in Congress. Jim McDermott, a Democratic congressman from Washington, went on Fox News to defend himself yesterday after seeming to blame the victims of the targeting, but he only ended up reinforcing the notion that he views the victims here with suspicion. And Americans are listening, as CBS explains: “As hearings on Capitol Hill rage on to explore the origins of the targeting scheme, most Americans said they are following the story, with 21 percent who said they are following it very closely.”

They are tuning in because they are rewarded for doing so. Thanks to the IRS and the administration’s behavior, Americans keep learning more and more about the scandal while being given less reason to believe official explanations.