AMONG President Obama's first statements concerning the National Security Agency's mining of metadata from billions of private telephone calls, emails and website visits was this curious observation: “If people can't trust not only the executive branch but also don't trust Congress, and don't trust federal judges, to make sure that we're abiding by the Constitution with due process and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here.”
That is an especially curious statement because it was uttered by a chief executive who surely knew that public trust in every part of government in Washington (except the U.S. military) is already at historic lows. Washington's credibility gap with the American people wasn't produced by the NSA revelations — it predates Obama's first inauguration — but the problem has grown measurably deeper on his watch, especially during and since his re-election campaign last year.
As the Pew Research Center for People and the Press reported in April, public trust in the federal government has reached its lowest point in the survey's 16-year history, with only 28 percent of Americans expressing confidence in Washington. Even a majority of Democrats now have an unfavorable view of the federal government. In 2001, following the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government enjoyed nearly unanimous public approval, but it's been downhill ever since. Just in the past year under Obama, Washington's public approval rating has sunk 5 more points.
And why not, considering what has happened in the past 12 months. Recall that discussion of Obama's first-term record was almost entirely blocked out last summer by his re-election campaign's incessant drumbeat of savage, often misleading personal criticism of Mitt Romney, his Republican opponent. Obama's “rich versus poor” attacks against Romney may well have been the most divisive since the shameless waving of the bloody shirt every four years by Republicans in the years following the Civil War. Decades passed before that era's wounds healed, and millions of Republican and independent voters who were repelled by Obama's rhetoric won't forget it any time soon.
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