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Re-emergence of debate over controversies could loom for Obama

For President Barack Obama, some difficult days in May still could become the dog days of summer.

As Republicans look to keep the embers of outrage associated with three White House controversies glowing throughout this week’s congressional recess, a new poll on Thursday suggested lingering political danger for President Barack Obama and his team.

The public is divided over whether the administration has been forthcoming about its role in a trio of controversies involving revelations that the IRS had targeted conservative groups, its initial explanation for last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the administration’s admission that it had targeted journalists’ phone and email records in a leak investigation.

The swirl of debate surrounding those issues has largely quieted this week, as lawmakers return to their home states and districts for a post-Memorial Day recess. But Thursday’s Quinnipiac University poll suggested there’s ample kindling to reignite the controversies when they return.

More Americans now believe the Obama administration deliberately misled the public than shared the available facts about the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks in Benghazi, which came at the height of last year’s presidential election, and resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Forty-six percent of Americans said they believe the administration misled the public about the causes for the attack in Benghazi, versus 40 percent who believe the administration has been forthcoming. More strikingly, that’s a reversal from last December, when 41 percent said the administration had misled the public, and 47 percent said the administration had shared the facts about Benghazi.

(Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton doesn’t escape blame, either; 46 percent of Quinnipiac respondents said the possible 2016 presidential candidate deserves a lot of blame for Stephens’s death, and an additional 26 percent assign her a little bit of blame.)

The woes don’t end there, either. Seventy-six percent of Americans – including 63 percent of Democrats – said they thought an independent, special prosecutor should be named to delve into the situation at the IRS.

But on this issue, for now, Obama gets the benefit of the doubt. Forty-five percent of Americans said the abuses within the IRS were made by civil service employees, versus 35 percent who said they suspected the Obama administration was behind the targeting of conservatives. And for now, slightly more Americans – 45 percent – said that Obama has been forthcoming about the IRS scandal than the 40 percent who accuse the White House of having misled the public on the matter.

Republicans seem poised to continue to press the issue, though. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., issued a subpoena on Tuesday seeking more emails and documents about the administration’s response to Benghazi. And conservative groups joined together to file a lawsuit against the IRS, its top officials and Attorney General Eric Holder.

And Republicans are even trying to play a little bit of offense, too. A group of GOP senators demanded the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services investigate Sec. Kathleen Sebelius for having allegedly helped raise money to help promote the implementation of Obamacare.

But there are warning signs, too, for Republicans who have aggressively dug into those issues. 

While many believe the controversies about Benghazi, the IRS and journalists’ phone records are worth pursuing, Americans also say those investigations should take a back seat to the issue of jobs and the economy. Seventy-three percent of Americans (including 60 percent of Republicans) said that jobs and the economy should be the higher priority, versus 22 percent of Americans who argued for putting investigations into the administration first. 

In essence, if Republicans are seen as putting investigations into the administration before their work on repairing the still-struggling economy, it could backfire politically.

To that point, while Thursday’s Quinnipiac poll found Obama’s approval rating slipping slightly – from 48-45 approve/disapprove at the beginning of May to 45-49 percent at the end of the month – it’s not as though Republicans have improved their standing as a result. Thirty-five percent of Americans expressed a favorable opinion of the GOP, versus 50 percent who expressed an unfavorable view of Republicans – about on par with where the GOP has stood in the Quinnipiac poll for much of this year.

The poll was conducted May 22-28, and has a 2.6 percent margin of error.



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