June 5 (Bloomberg) -- Almost half of Americans say President Barack Obama isn’t telling the truth when he says he didn’t know the Internal Revenue Service was giving extra scrutiny to the applications of small government groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Forty-seven percent of Americans say they don’t believe Obama compared with 40 percent who say he is being truthful, according to a Bloomberg National Poll of 1,002 adults conducted May 31 through June 3.
More than half of political independents -- 53 percent -- say Obama’s explanation that he learned it from media reports is untrue, while 34 percent say they believe him.
“How could he not know?” said poll respondent June Wilshusen, 50, of Yuma, Colorado, a political independent and a stay-at-home wife married to a machinist. “I think any president has to know what’s going on with our government. I think they’re very aware of the IRS.”
The doubts about Obama’s credibility come as a series of scandals have dominated news coverage, helping to diminish a post-election surge in the president’s popularity and optimism about the direction of the country. Obama’s job approval rating declined six percentage points since the last Bloomberg poll in February, to 49 percent from 55 percent, returning to its lowest level since last September.
The poll results illustrate how quickly the re-election glow has faded from Obama’s presidency, slowing his political momentum as he pursues a second-term agenda including a revision of immigration law, action on global climate change and an agreement to secure the financial outlook for programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
The president’s personal popularity has been more resilient. Fifty-three percent of Americans say they have a favorable impression of him, down from 56 percent who said so in February.
“People still like the guy: that’s been a hallmark of his presidency,” J. Ann Selzer, president of Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll for Bloomberg. “But we’re reverting back to the mood of the nation during his first term, when people were disappointed with his performance in office. Even Democrats have cooled.”
The portion of Democrats who think the country is headed in the right direction declined to 58 percent from 68 percent in February. Obama’s job approval among Democrats declined slightly to 86 percent from 89 percent in February.
In addition to the IRS scandal, Obama is confronting Republican criticism of talking points the administration used following an attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya last September and controversy over a secret subpoena of journalists’ phone records in a news leak investigation.
Public sentiment toward congressional Republicans also has turned more negative, as the portion of Americans saying they have a positive view of them declined to 35 percent from 37 percent in September 2012, when Bloomberg last asked the question. Fifty-three percent of Americans view them unfavorably.
The disclosure last month that the IRS gave extra scrutiny to groups with “Tea Party” or “patriot” in their names has aroused public suspicion.
Forty-eight percent of Americans say the attention was politically motivated, rejecting the explanation IRS officials and the White House have provided. Only 31 percent say they believe the screening was a bureaucratic shortcut, with the remainder uncertain.
Political independents share the skepticism: 50 percent say they think the extra scrutiny of non-profit applicants was politically motivated, compared with 31 percent who don’t think so.
The public lacks a clear consensus on how Congress, which has begun multiple probes into the additional screening, is reacting to the IRS revelations. Thirty-two percent say lawmakers are devoting the right amount of attention to the issue, with 29 saying they are devoting too much time to it and 26 percent saying too little.
Skepticism remains about Obama’s explanation that he first learned of the improper screening through media reports.
“For him to say he read it in the paper like any common man would just doesn’t make sense,” said poll respondent Austin Price, 18, a recent high school graduate in Harrisburg, Illinois, and a political independent.
The mood of the country has darkened since the last Bloomberg poll in February, even as people are becoming more upbeat about their own financial circumstances. Eight measures of financial well-being surveyed in the poll, including housing and job security, showed signs of improving personal optimism.
That new sense of economic security contrasts with the portion of Americans who say the country is on the wrong track, which jumped to 60 percent from 54 percent, despite falling unemployment, rising consumer confidence and a surging stock market.
Americans are the most pessimistic about the country since last September, when 60 percent also said the nation was headed in the wrong direction.
The negative assessment has returned even as the unemployment rate dropped to 7.5 percent in April from 7.9 percent at the beginning of the year, and the U.S. stock market broke records as the benchmark Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose more than 14 percent so far this year.
The public has embraced the White House’s message that the automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration has hindered economic growth. The cuts began March 1 because of a deadlock between the White House and congressional Republicans on how to meet deficit reduction targets.
Fifty-five percent of Americans say the automatic spending cuts have done more damage to the economy, compared with 25 percent who say they have done more to help the economy. Republicans say the cuts have done more harm than good by 49 percent to 30 percent.
Poll respondent Larry Green, 69, a retired engineer and political independent in Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, cited a report in a local newspaper saying that federal workers in the area would be furloughed over the summer. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced last month that the department’s civilian employees would be furloughed 11 days by Sept. 30.
“I’m not an economist, but I can sure say there’s going be a lot of people not buying things that they might have purchased if this had not occurred,” Green said. “It hurts them and it hurts the economy.”
Satisfaction with Obama’s job performance has declined during the past three months on every measure included in the poll: down five percentage points on handling the economy, three points on making “people like me feel” more economically secure, three points on the budget deficit, three points on health care, four points on negotiating with the Republican majority in the House, seven points on immigration and eight points on terrorism.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
Older Americans, never a core constituency for Obama, have particularly soured on both him and the country’s direction during the last few months. Obama included a provision in his budget proposal this year to reduce annual cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security payments by changing the measure of inflation used to compute benefits.
Disapproval of the president’s job performance is up 12 percentage points among people aged at least 65, rising to 59 percent from 47 percent in February.
The portion of seniors who believe the country is on the wrong track rose to 70 percent from 60 percent in February.
Americans disapproved, by 51 percent to 31 percent, of Obama’s handling of the ongoing controversy about the attack in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans -- including the U.S. ambassador -- were killed last September by terrorists. The question was not included in prior polls.
Views of congressional Democrats improved, with 43 percent having a favorable impression, up from 41 percent who said so last September.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s standing declined, with 29 percent holding a positive view and 26 percent a negative one, versus a February reading of 31 percent positive and 26 percent negative. Still, 45 percent of respondents said they had no opinion on Bernanke.
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