Can We Trust President Obama? (Analysis)

PHOTO: A Marine holds a umbrella as President Barack Obama speaks during his joint news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Thursday, May 16, 2013, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.Charles Dharapak/AP Photo
A Marine holds a umbrella as President Barack Obama speaks during his joint news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Thursday, May 16, 2013, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.

If you've followed the news this week, even just a little bit, you might be asking "what the hell is going on in Washington?"

Here's a quick summary: A trio of emerging scandals -- the administration's handling of the aftermath of the deadly attacks on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, the IRS' overzealous scrutiny of tea party and other political groups, and the Department of Justice's seizure of Associated Press journalists' phone records -- has forced President Obama into a defensive crouch roughly six months after he won reelection. Media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post have questioned how much the president can accomplish in his second term with these scandals hovering overhead.

Obama and his administration have started to respond to the incidents in a few ways. They released over 100 pages of emails related to Benghazi, ordered new diplomatic security efforts, fired the acting IRS director, and opened a federal investigation into the tax-collecting agency. (The government is essentially defending its phone-records seizure, btw).

From what we know about these incidents so far, none of them personally involve the president himself. But these scandals still pose serious questions for Obama, like whether we can trust his vision and management of government?

Obama's core philosophy is of an active government that helps its citizens. He offered a vehement defense of that vision during a commencement address at Ohio State University a few weeks ago.

"We have never been a people who place all our faith in government to solve our problems, nor do we want it to," he said. "But we don't think the government is the source of all our problems, either. Because we understand that this democracy is ours. As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government."

Second term scandals aren't just an Obama thing. George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and many others all had their fair share of them. And none of them, including Obama's, have been a cakewalk to fix.

Such scandals have had a long-term impact on the public's relationship with its leaders. Ever since Vietnam and Watergate, Americans have developed a deep-seated distrust of government. Yes, if you're under the age of 30 or have brown skin, there's a slightly better chance that you trust the government more than the average white guy. But still, majorities across all racial, demographic, and age groups feel otherwise, according to the Pew Research Center.

To a large degree, Obama's mission in office has been to restore that trust by creating new programs designed to protect or assist disadvantaged Americans.

For example, his healthcare law is supposed to dramatically expand insurance coverage, especially to those who could not previously afford it. The IRS is supposed to play a major role in its implementation. Can the law -- Obama's signature domestic achievement -- be implemented without unwanted government intrusion into people's personal lives?

More broadly, a president's credibility and public approval can determine whether he sustains momentum for his second-term priorities. Ask President Bush whether he could get Social Security reform and immigration done after Iraq and Katrina.

It's true that Obama says that he was blindsided by the conduct of the IRS and that the Justice Department acted independently in obtaining the AP phone records. Although his not knowing brings into question the control he has over his administration. His initial response to the scandals was most certainly criticized for being too passive, even by his own former staffers.

Considering the tactics deployed by the Justice Department against AP journalists, and the shifting explanation of the Benghazi attack, can Obama still say with a straight face that his is the "most transparent administration in history?"

Judging by the magnitude of the issues Obama faces, this and many other questions could linger for months.