Thursday, October 25, 2012

Suddenly, a Credibility Gap

Benghazi has damaged voters' willingness to believe in Barack Obama.

Less than 14 days before the vote, Gallup has Mitt Romney leading the president by three points and in Rasmussen he's up four. This paper's poll brought Mr. Romney from chronically behind to even. Yes, 270 Electoral College votes will decide the race, but with the whole nation watching the same events, one has to ask whether what we're seeing is Mitt Romney's rise or Barack Obama's decline.
It is conventional wisdom that incumbency breeds advantages. But incumbency also brings burdens, and the Obama candidacy looks like it's buckling beneath one: Of the two candidates, the president is held to a higher standard of behavior.
There have been only two events that could be said to have caused significant movement by voters in the campaign. One was the Oct. 3 Denver debate in which Mitt Romney disinterred political skills that stunned the incumbent and woke up a sleeping electorate. Race on.
imageAFP/Getty Images
Vehicle inside the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 11.
The other is Benghazi. The damage done to the Obama campaign by the Sept. 11 death in Benghazi of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three American colleagues has been more gradual than the sensation of the Denver debate, but its effect may have been deeper.
The incumbent president has a credibility gap.

The phenomenon of a credibility gap dates to the Vietnam War and the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. The charge then was that LBJ wasn't leveling with the American people or Congress about Vietnam. The credibility gap was hardly the only thing that caused LBJ to withdraw from the 1968 election, but it eroded support for his presidency.
Credibility gaps can be unfair things. They generally involve difficult foreign affairs in which presidents possess information and realities never revealed to the general public, presumably for its own good. That may be what this White House believes about Benghazi. But it is also true that only this White House knows why it allowed the Benghazi disaster to drip though the news from September into October, with no credible account of the attack, even as reporters for newspapers such as this one got the story out.
In time it was no surprise that people began to ask: Was the White House hiding something about an event of enormous gravity to protect the president's candidacy? For much of the American electorate, that would be cause to start marking down a presidency.
Joe Biden didn't help in the Oct. 11 veep debate (a month after the event) when he off-loaded responsibility on the intelligence services. Days later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to take responsibility at a conference in Lima, Peru. That didn't still the doubts. Rather than hold a traditional press conference like presidents past, Mr. Obama on Oct. 18 talked at length on TV to Jon Stewart, a one-man press pool, who asked the president to clear up discrepancies in the administration's account—"the perception that State was on a different page than you."
At this point, the answer hardly mattered. The discomfort over presidential credibility on Benghazi put the Obama candidacy in a six-week downdraft. Barring an October surprise, nothing similar is affecting the Romney campaign.
Even by the standards of our celebrified culture, Barack Obama's personalization of the American presidency has been outsized. He and his political team sought this aura. Hillary and the rest of the cabinet receded, while he rose. In Monday's debate, Mr. Obama stumbled into a summation of his status: "This nation, me, my administration." L'etat, c'est me.
Until now, it worked. Despite an awful economy, the president's likability numbers held firm. Many wanted to believe in this larger-than-life president. His clumsy handling of Benghazi, however, has opened a gap in the president's credibility. What else can explain Mitt Romney ascending in polls to equality with the president on foreign policy and terrorism before the last debate?
The discomfiture over Benghazi has spilled into other parts of his campaign. Among my top five events of the 2012 election will be that fellow in the town-hall debate who said, "I'm not that optimistic," and asked the president to address what he's doing about "everyday living" in America. He was asking the president he voted for why he should still believe. Mr. Obama diverted into telling him about ending Iraq and killing bin Laden. Instead of presidential assurance, he got talking points.
His weird, persistent vagueness about the shape of a second-term agenda has sown doubt about the economy going forward. Only now is that agenda being revealed, more or less, with a 20-page pamphlet, "The New Economic Patriotism." A new Obama ad urges viewers to "read it."
It may be that voters think both candidates have stretched the truth, but credibility is the coin of a presidency. The political cost of devaluing that coin is higher for an incumbent seeking a second term and higher still for this one. Two weeks from Election Day, Barack Obama has been shown in Benghazi to be a president with feet of clay. It may well take him down.

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