President Obama's poll numbers continue to slide this week in the wake of the NSA PRISM scandal, with a new CNN/ORC Poll showing his approval rating hovering at just around 45%. This is down from the president's brief peak of 76% in February 2009.
This puts Obama below the "Rule of 50," a term coined by former Bill Clinton pollster and top strategist Mark Penn. "The Rule of 50," Penn explains, "is the minute [your approval rating] falls below 50, everybody piles on you and before you know it, you're at 38, 35, because it becomes the political advantage for everyone to whack you. And the minute you're above 50, everybody has to think twice about whacking you, and you can actually build capital up."
But what hurts most for the president is the numbers he's long considered to be the most important. Support from those under 30, usually his most ardent supporters, has plummeted 17% in one month. Fewer responders reported seeing the president as "honest and trustworthy," a nine point drop from a month ago to 49%. This is the only time that number has been below 50% for the president, meaning that fewer people are inclined to generally believe Obama is an honest figure, even if they don't necessarily agree with his policies.
"Once you lose 'honest and trustworthy' and credibility," explains former Bush pollster Matthew Dowd, "which is also what happened to George Bush, people start to say, 'I don't trust this guy on anything.' Once your gut connection on value cracks, there's no getting it back … My guess is that wherever Obama's number settles, barring some big external event, it won't get above that."
Much of this comes as a result of the PRISM leak, which brings the worst numbers of the report. Only 35% said they approved of the way Obama is handling government surveillance (compared to 39% who approved of President Bush's approach to surveillance in 2006), and 43% say that the White House has "gone too far" with regard to restricting civil liberties to fight terrorism.
Why does this matter? President Obama has already made his way through two successful elections and, on the one hand, can pretty much do whatever he wants. But these numbers have a real effect on Washington, as Democratic officials are increasingly made to face the issues most controversial for the White House — and are forced to take a stance on issues like NSA, IRS, probes into reporters' private records, and Benghazi. And in contested Congressional seats, Republican challengers have made a fairly easy time of linking their opponents to the many unpopular second-term scandals that have rocked the administration.
"Members of Congress use approval ratings when determining if they should or should not support the president's agenda," says Dan Bartlett, a former counselor to George W. Bush. "The lower the number, the more political freedom they believe they have." This seems to be the case on immigration, an issue for which the president has largely taken a back seat as senior members of the Senate debate the finer points of the bill. Some high-ranking Democrats have requested the president steer clear of Congress, and focus instead on mustering public support for the Affordable Care Act, much of which goes into effect next year.
If the president can't get his poll numbers up, he risks spending the rest of his second term chased by the scandals that hit his first, as well as the fresh ones that cropped up in the beginning of 2013. This could mean the loss of House and Senate seats for Democrats, and important legislative initiatives like gun control, comprehensive immigration reform, and climate change never realized. President Obama may never again need to persuade the American people to vote for him, but for the sake of his party and his campaign promises, it may be worth spending some time persuading them that it wasn't a mistake to have done so.