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Poll: Obama's standing is steady--but scandals hurt him with independents

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President Barack Obama on May 28, 2013.  (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama on May 28, 2013.

This story was originally published on

The recent disputes involving the IRS, last year's deadly Benghazi attack and the Justice Department's media probes have raised doubts about the Obama administration’s honesty and integrity among majorities of Americans, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds.

President Barack Obama’s support among independents has been eroded by the controversies, but his overall standing with the public hasn't taken a hit. His job-approval rating remains steady at 48%, essentially unchanged from the last NBC/WSJ poll in April.

President Barack Obama waves as he walks on the South Lawn of the White House upon his return to Washington on June 4, 2013.

One of the chief reasons for that consistent rating: most Americans don’t hold him primarily responsible for the controversies, according to the poll.

“The problem has come to the administration. Where it has not landed is the Oval Office,” said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.

“The benefit of the doubt is with the president,” Hart added.

McInturff concludes that the trio of controversies hasn’t reframed the political environment.

Click here to read the entire NBC/WSJ poll

“All of these episodes are not Iran-Contra,” he said, referring to arms-for-hostages scandal that rocked Ronald Reagan during his second term in office. “They are not restructuring numbers.”

Controversies highlight a partisan divideIn the poll, a combined 58% of respondents say they believe the State Department’s handling of a 2012 terrorist attack on a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, raises either major or minor doubts about the Obama administration’s honesty and integrity.

An equal percentage say the same of the Justice Department’s subpoena of reporters’ phone records in a national-security leaks investigation.

And 55% think the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative-sounding groups that applied for tax-exempt status raises doubts about the administration’s honesty and integrity.

Additionally, a plurality of respondents say they believe the IRS targeting wasn’t an isolated event and represented a more widespread effort by the government to investigate conservative groups.

But most Americans don’t directly fault the president for these controversies.

Only a combined 41% hold Obama “totally” or “mainly” responsible for the Benghazi attack; 37 percent say the same of his culpability in the Justice Department’s subpoena of reporters’ phone records; and just 33% directly blame him for the IRS’s targeting of conservative-sounding groups.

What’s more, 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.

Overall, 35% of respondents in the poll say the president is experiencing a short-term setback from which he’ll likely recover, while 43% believe it’s a longer-term setback from which things probably won’t get better.

To put that 43% figure into perspective, a majority--54%--said Obama was facing a longer-term setback in the Aug. 2011 NBC/WSJ poll, which was taken after the president’s debt-ceiling battle with Congress.

And majorities in 2005 (53%), 2006 (58%) and 2007 (65%) said George W. Bush was suffering a long-term setback after his second-term struggles.

Obama’s midterm report card: Neither honor roll nor detentionThe president’s approval rating in the poll stands at 48%, which is up one point from April.

In addition, 47% view him favorably, compared with 40% who see him in a negative light--essentially unchanged from the last poll.

But he’s also seen a decline in his numbers among independent respondents: just 28% of them approve of his job--down from 41% in February and 37%  in April.

Obama also has seen a drop when it comes to questions about his presidential qualities.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports on President Barack Obama's impact on the judicial branch.

A whopping 67% of Americans give the president high marks for being easygoing and likable, which is up slightly from Jan. 2013 after his successful re-election bid. Another 50% give him high marks for having high personal standards that set the proper tone for the country, which is essentially unchanged.

But just 46% give him high marks for having strong leadership qualities (down from 53% in January); only 42% give him high marks for being honest and straightforward (down from 47%); and just 21% give him high marks for changing business as usual in Washington (down from 28%).

Democratic pollster Fred Yang, who works with Hart, views these numbers as a midterm report card for the beginning of Obama’s second term.

“The president doesn’t merit the honor roll or detention,” Yang said. “But the poll does have some strong warnings for the administration.”

Good news, bad news on the economyYet the survey 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.

Lacking confidence in American institutionsAnd 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.

Of respondents, 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.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted May 30 to June 2 among 1000 adults (including 300 cell phone-only respondents), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.