Public Sharply Critical on IRS, Benghazi; But Economy Cuts Obama Some Slack

Americans in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll sharply reject special scrutiny of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service, suspect an administration cover-up of the Benghazi incident and express substantial distrust of the federal government more generally.

Yet the national survey also finds no backlash against Barack Obama, at least at this point. His job approval rating is stable, albeit at a tepid 51 percent; he's aided by accelerating economic optimism as well as by comparison with the much less-popular Republicans in Congress.

See PDF with full results and charts here.

Longer-term impacts of contentious current issues remain to be seen, but there's potential for significant damage to the administration. Americans by a vast 74-20 percent see the IRS' behavior as inappropriate, with most feeling that way strongly - and 56 percent see it as a deliberate attempt to harass conservative organizations, not a mere administrative error.

The public divides on whether or not the administration is honestly disclosing what it knows about the IRS' actions; 45 percent suspect a cover-up, 42 percent instead see full transparency. And more than a third overall in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, think these actions not only are inappropriate, but illegal.

Further, on the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last fall, suspicions of a cover-up rise to a majority, 55 percent. And in this case only a third of Americans are persuaded that the Obama administration is disclosing honestly what it knows about what occurred.

Beyond this negative view of the administration's disclosure on Benghazi, Americans divide evenly on whether Republican criticisms on the issue reflect legitimate concerns or "political posturing." But Hillary Clinton's reputation thus far is largely intact: Despite criticisms of her handling of the incident, 62 percent approve of her work as secretary of state overall, down a bit from about six months ago but still a strong rating.

DISTRUST - Another result underscores the level of general distrust of the federal government. Americans by 54-38 percent say they think the government is doing more to threaten the rights of average Americans than to protect those rights. That's not IRS-specific, however, since it was about as high in a similar Pew Research question in January.

There's a high level of partisanship in suspicion of the government: Seventy-one percent of Republicans see it more as threatening than as protecting their rights, while just 31 percent of Democrats agree. But the balance is tipped by political independents, among whom a clear majority (61 percent) sees the government more as a threat than a source of protection.

Beyond politics, there's an apparent economic element to trust in government, suggesting a perceived right to economic opportunity. People who see or expect economic recovery are much more likely than economic pessimists also to think that the government is protecting rather than threatening most people's rights - regardless of their political or ideological preferences.

Beyond a sense of general distrust, there's broad public concern about press freedoms, an issue related to federal prosecutors obtaining Associated Press telephone records in an effort to find the source of classified information about terrorism that was leaked to the news agency. Americans by 69-29 percent in this poll say they're concerned that in trying to protect classified information the federal government will improperly intrude on the freedom of the press.

Specific to the AP issue, however, the public by 52-33 percent says prosecutors were justified in obtaining phone records via a court order, with results, in this case, similar across partisan and ideological lines. That may be because the leak related to terrorism, an issue on which the public tends to side with investigative efforts over privacy rights. Further, it's not clear if the administration used a court order or instead a grand jury subpoena, which is not technically a court order but has a similar effect. Specifics on this issue, as well as other particulars of the case as they become known, could influence public attitudes.

OBAMA/ECONOMY - None of these issues appears to have impacted views of the president's job performance; his approval rating, now 51 percent, has been essentially unchanged after slipping in March from a brief post-election foray into the mid-50s. An open question, though, is whether the president may have gained ground had these controversies not arisen.

In any case, strong sentiment about the president now divides evenly, after tilting slightly more negative in March and April. Moreover, the partisan gap in views of his performance, while still vast, is its smallest since December 2011, and Obama has majority approval among men for the first time since December 2010. Both may reflect the effects of an improving economy.

On that score, 56 percent of Americans now say the economy is beginning to recover, up by a dramatic 20 percentage points in the past year and a half, to the most since ABC and the Post first asked the question in late 2009. The change is broadly based, but strongest among financially better-off adults.

Additionally, more than half, 53 percent, now say they're optimistic about the economy's prospects in the year ahead, a majority for the first time in four years. (A steadier majority, two-thirds, expresses optimism about their own finances.)

These economic views, as noted, are closely related to political sentiment; Obama's rating is far higher among those who see economic gains.

None of this means the economy's in great shakes; Americans divide evenly, 48-48 percent, in approval or disapproval of how Obama's handled it overall, with more "strongly" negative views than strongly positive ones. But that's still one of his best scores on the economy since mid-2009. A little more than a year ago, by contrast, more disapproved than approved by a 21-point margin.

THE GOP - Obama also benefits from a comparative advantage vs. the Republicans in Congress. Regardless of his own rating on the economy, he leads the GOP in trust to handle it by 46-37 percent. That's fluctuated; it's a bit better for the president now than in March, but down from his wider 18-point advantage on the economy during his post-election bump in December.

Obama has a larger advantage in a more general question: Fifty-one percent of Americans say he is "mainly concentrating on things that are important to you personally." That's 8 points more than say the same about the Democrats in Congress - and 18 points more than say so about the Republicans.

Notably, Obama also is well ahead of his predecessor. At about this point in George W. Bush's second term just 41 percent said he was focused on issues important to them, 10 points weaker than Obama's score. Similarly, at that point 55 percent said Bush had done more to divide than to unite the country; 45 percent say the same about Obama now, with more undecided.

TEA TIME - In one division of interest, this poll finds a continued roughly even split in views of the Tea Party political movement, with 40 percent of adults saying they support it overall, 43 percent opposed. "Strong" support for the movement, at 10 percent, is numerically its lowest on record, and just about half the level of strong opposition, 22 percent.

Sizable majorities of Tea Party supporters and opponents alike say it was inappropriate for the IRS to single out conservative groups for extra scrutiny on their applications for tax-exempt status. At the same time, Tea Party aficionados are much more apt than its critics to think the IRS' actions constituted intentional harassment, were illegal and are the subject of an attempted cover-up by the Obama administration.

ONWARD AND (POLITICALLY) DOWNWARD? - This survey, in sum, finds items for individuals across the political spectrum to enjoy, and others for them to worry about. After years in the tank, views on the economy unabashedly are improving, a positive result any way you slice it. That's helping to support the president's ratings, as are his comparisons to the long-lagging GOP. But the IRS issue, in particular, looks to pose a real risk to the administration, given the depth and breadth of criticism about it.

Most threatening, perhaps - to both sides of the aisle - is the public's political mood more broadly. Views of the government as a threat ebb and flow, but are not new; as long ago as 1995, 55 percent in a Los Angeles Times poll said the government's activities threatened their constitutional rights. But the return to that sentiment is a clear negative.

There are others: Even with improving economic views, 57 percent in this poll say the country continues to head "seriously off on the wrong track." And while a majority now expresses economic optimism, when Americans are asked the likelihood that Obama and the Republicans will work together in the year ahead, the response is pessimistic by a resounding 2-1 margin.

METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone May 16-19, 2013, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including design effect. Partisan divisions are 33-22-38 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents.

The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.