Scandals Erode Politically Fatigued Public’s Trust

Salena Zito
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Everyone on the outdoor patio of a Dupont Circle restaurant could overhear the young, smartly dressed couple struggling to decide what capital-city destination to visit next.

One place they adamantly agreed on not wishing to see was the White House — an interesting decision, considering that two of the five canvas bags they carried were faded “Obama for America” totes given to donors during the president’s 2012 re-election campaign.

“I’m just, you know, exhausted by Obama, by the media, by politics. Let’s just stick to museums and the war memorials,” said the woman.

America is exhausted by national politics. A refrain voiced by many people after the class-warfare campaigning of the November election was, “Thank God it’s over!”

Yet the partisanship and us-against-them rhetoric has only accelerated and intensified since Election Day.

A mere two weeks after winning, President Obama was back on the warpath in Pennsylvania with a speech claiming that Republicans would “spoil Christmas by driving the country over the fiscal cliff.”

Immediately after that, he campaigned relentlessly for a gun-control bill and against the NRA and its supporters. When he lost that effort, his response was anger and blame, calling it a “shameful” day for politics. “The gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill,” he said from the White House Rose Garden, in a voice rising with agitation.

Then came the scandals.

First there was Benghazi, which had been around since Sept. 11, 2012, but broke wide open last month when Congress demanded the release of emails concerning the construction of White House talking points about the deadly terrorist attack.

That was followed by the Justice Department outing itself in a letter about obtaining Associated Press phone records.

Next, the IRS planted a question during a lawyers’ conference that revealed it has targeted tea-party groups for unprecedented, unwarranted scrutiny.

And, late last week, word broke that the National Security Agency is cataloging the wireless activities of basically every American and extracting data directly from the nation’s nine leading Internet companies.

Partisan fatigue is a real factor in American politics. Since 1952, only one political party has held the presidency for more than two consecutive terms — Republicans, from 1980 to 1992. And note that, in 1992, Americans’ partisan fatigue was so great that 62 percent of them voted against the GOP — 43 percent for Democrat Bill Clinton and 19 percent for independent Ross Perot.

“Quite frankly, I think what we are seeing around the country is not partisan fatigue but political fatigue,” said Lara Brown, an expert on the Electoral College and the author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency.”

“In other words, rather than the electorate being upset and frustrated with one party, which then tends to lead them to vote to throw the rascals out and side with the ‘out’ party, what appears to be shaping up is ‘a pox on both your houses’ indifference to all politicians,” she explained.

So, while all of this Washington-politics noise washes over folks, the nation’s employment rate has not moved the entire time that the president has been in office. (According to the numbers guys at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 58 percent of the civilian population over the age of 16 had a job in April, which means that the jobs rate has not made up for the jobs lost in the recession — a pretty bleak picture and one which folks care about outside Washington, but apparently not so much inside Washington.)

The big thing lost in this big ball of frustration is trust: An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week showed a large majority of respondents believe all of the scandals have raised doubts about the integrity and honesty of the Obama administration.

This brings us back to that couple in Dupont Circle for a bit of Washington tourism.

Their agreement to avoid the White House could be an isolated, individual decision. But, if you are losing the interest of those folks who invested enough in you to receive a tote bag with your name on it, then perhaps that reflects more than political exhaustion.

It might reflect a loss of trust.