It's impossible to predict the lasting impact of the controversies now besetting the Obama administration, but the risks to the president's agenda are sizable.
Foreign policy matters rarely top the list of voter concerns. That's especially true in times of challenging economic news. In recent weeks, though, national security topics have been working their way into the headlines. First came the Boston Marathon bombings and questions about terrorist connections. The civil war in Syria entered the news with reports of chemical warfare followed by an Israeli bombing near Damascus. Finally, congressional hearings have provided additional details about what happened in Benghazi, Libya, on the day Ambassador Christopher Stevens and other Americans were murdered during a terrorist attack.
There are many ways to describe the enormous gap between the American people and their elected politicians. Most in official Washington tend to think that their elite community is smarter and better than the rest of us. Many hold a condescending view of voters and suggest that the general public is too ignorant to be treated seriously. Only 5 percent of the nation's voters, however, believe that Congress and its staff members represent the nation's best and brightest.
The news from Boston over the past couple of weeks has been the stuff of nightmares. Homemade bombs killing and injuring innocent people at a high-profile public event were followed by a massive manhunt. People in the surrounding suburbs were ordered to stay inside, businesses closed, and SWAT teams overwhelmed a typically quiet community. The Boston police commissioner warned everyone: "We believe this is a terrorist. We believe this is a man that's come here to kill people."
Mitt Romney's secretly recorded comment that 47 percent of Americans are "dependent on the government" and "believe they are victims" isn't the only reason he lost the presidential campaign. But the candidate himself acknowledged after the election that the comments were "very harmful."
Gun control advocates sound puzzled by congressional resistance to relatively modest gun control legislation.
There's a strong desire among many Americans today to address a growing problem of income inequality. That desire helped President Obama raise taxes on upper-income Americans a few months ago. It's reflected in the fact that just 35 percent believe the U.S. economy is fair to the middle class, and only 41 percent believe it's fair to those willing to work hard. Still, it's not really the inequality that bothers people. After all, 65 percent believe that it's fair for those who create very successful companies to become very rich. The problem comes when some people earn big bucks simply because they can game the system in ways that aren't available to most Americans.
Sixty-eight percent of voters believe that, when done legally, immigration is good for America. Most voters for years have favored a welcoming policy of immigration. Unlike many issues these days, there is virtually no partisan disagreement.
These facts raise a question that should make everyone in official Washington uncomfortable. If immigration is good for America and there is support across party lines, why can't the politicians figure out a way to come up with something that works?
Americans have a healthy respect for free market competition and are resistant to government interference -- even when they don't like what the market is up to. For example, 69 percent of Americans believe that large corporate executives are overpaid, but only 17 percent want the government to regulate their pay.
James Carville famously kept the 1992 Clinton campaign on message with the simple refrain, "It's the economy, stupid!" That's just as true for politicians today as it was two decades ago.