April showers bring May flowers, but not for the Obama administration. Republicans across the country are calling for the president's head after his administration was rocked by several high-profile scandals. But how many Americans really want to see their commander-in-chief removed for “high crimes and misdemeanors?” The answer may surprise you.
What History Tells Us About Impeachment
A U.S. President has never been impeached and removed from office (Nixon likely would have been, but he stepped down before official proceedings could begin). Millennials will of course remember the trial of William J. Clinton, but that farce was brought to an end by a Senate acquittal. Nonetheless, the two events serve as bookmarks in public opinion – how supportive were the American people of impeachment? In Nixon’s case, very. One NBC/Associated Press poll conducted in August 1978 found 72% of respondents believed Nixon had committed an impeachable offense during the Watergate affair. During the height of the Lewinsky scandal, though, only one-third of America supported impeachment proceedings against Clinton (though this fraction increased as it became clear he would not be removed from office, thus the impeachment served as a reprimand, not an ejection).
Democrats also mulled impeaching George W. Bush. Again, public support was lacking. Only 36% believed the warrantless-wiretapping scandal of his second term warranted removal from office; in August 2007, 43% favored impeachment strongly or somewhat, but the majority (52%) still opposed any trials. If the public didn’t support impeaching Bush at the height of his unpopularity, can many favor removing Obama from office?
Republicans believe the answer is “yes.” Though they’ve been clamoring for impeachment since the Benghazi affair, reports that the Justice Department may have illegally seized phone records of journalists, and the ongoing investigation into the IRS’s alleged targeting of conservative groups have given the GOP more scandals than they know what to do with.
The Obama Administration's No-Good-Very-Bad Month
To be fair, the Republicans have claimed everything from Obama’s executive orders on gun violence to the Affordable Care Act justify removal from office. Americans are split on whether the current hysteria is legitimate — on Benghazi, 44% say the GOP’s concerns are fair, while 45% view the hearings as “political posturing.” As the Washington Post points out, those numbers are highly correlated to party identification. A further 55%, including Democrats and independents, believe the Obama administration is covering up pertinent facts. The Justice Department scandal has had less effect, with 52% believing the record seizures were justified. IRS-gate cuts across party lines, with majorities among Democrats, Republicans, and independents strongly disapproving of the activities in Cincinnati.
Interestingly, these numbers have not had an adverse effect on Obama’s public support. The same Washington Post/ABC News poll finds the president’s rating holding steady at 51% positive.
That’s important. It means that despite weeks of conservative hand-wringing and threats, the American public’s opinions on these scandals aren’t translating into disapproval of the president. Which means Republicans may have a hard time gathering the support they need to oust Obama.
Public Opinion to Republicans: "Not So Fast."
Current polling on whether Americans support impeachment is unreliable, at best. As Huffington Post pollster Emily Swanson points out, polling on this topic is difficult, since results are highly susceptible to variation depending on contact method and word choice. For example, a survey experiment conducted among a representative sample found that support for impeachment varied by nine points, depending on how the question was phrased. Further, opposition ranged from half to two-thirds of respondents, including almost 40% of Republicans. These numbers are fascinating: Even though a plurality of Republicans believes Obama was not born in the U.S. and virtually all of them rate him unfavorably, only 51% to 66% of the rank-and-file conservatives support impeachment proceedings.
These results indicate two important realities. First, Americans recognize that impeachment is an incredibly drastic action to take against a sitting president. Second, the GOP may be betting on the wrong horse.
When Speaker Gingrich and the House Republicans went after Bill Clinton, they didn’t just fail at impeachment. They lost five seats to the Democrats in the 1998 midterms, Gingrich resigned in embarrassment, and they damaged their brand, with almost 60% of the country disapproving of their party. They seem poised to repeat these mistakes, with members of Congress chomping at the bit to begin proceedings.
Given the fervent desire of the House delegation to remove Obama, perhaps the question isn’t “If?” but “When?” But Democrats need not panic quite yet, as the GOP does not control the Senate (and in my opinion, they don’t have the numbers to pull out a win in 2014). That renders any impeachment proceedings effectively neutered. But Philadelphia Post’s Joel Mathis makes a cogent point about the end results of such a maneuver: “if Republicans decide to impeach a Democratic president again … well, Democrats are probably going to take it personally. They’ll make an entirely rational political decision that there’s no reason not to obstruct, harass, and yes, impeach every Republican every chance they get … Why show restraint if Republicans won’t?” Indeed, one wonders if we would ever see the end of congressional gridlock if every incoming president has to defend against impeachment trials.
Whether the GOP decides to go down that road has yet to be seen (particularly with several high-profile members refusing to support such actions). But polling and history reveal a clear picture: Republicans beware.