LENOX

As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton duked it out in the final debate before the 2008 New Hampshire primary, Clinton -- then the front-runner -- was asked by the moderator if she had enough personal charisma to win.

Obama, in a woefully misguided attempt to turn on the charm, interrupted by saying, "You're likable enough, Hillary." Ouch! Voters interpreted his remark as a put-down and rewarded Clinton with a substantial victory before her campaign imploded.

How ironic that in President Obama's time of trial, with actual and purported scandals threatening his ability to govern just four months into his second term, his own likability is turning out to be a shield of protective armor.

Much as Ronald Reagan emerged mostly unscathed in his second term despite the very real Iran-Contra scandal, Obama seems to have turned into the second "Teflon President" thanks to his own and his family's popularity. He maintains his role as Consoler-in-Chief, as he prepares to visit tornado survivors in Moore, Okla., on Sunday.

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The Benghazi, Libya, "talking points" controversy ranks as a kerfuffle reflecting age-old tensions between the State Department and the CIA. But the unforgivable IRS targeting of conservative groups -- and the Justice Department's ham-handed effort to chill investigative reporting by foraging through phone records of nearly 20 Associated Press employees as it investigated national security leaks -- reflect poorly on Obama.


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His effort to stay above the fray as his West Wing posse tries to distance him from responsibility just don't play well, even with the president's ardent supporters. When IRS bureaucrat Lois Lerner told a Senate committee on Wednesday that she did nothing wrong by leading the drive to single out right-wing organizations for super-scrutiny, delaying or denying them non-profit status, she earned a well-deserved four Pinocchios from the Washington Post's intrepid fact checkers.

As many Americans have long suspected, the IRS is a rogue agency, too often above the law, and seemingly unbeholden to executive branch supervision. The taxmen and women should have been putting liberal as well as conservative groups through the wringer, treating them equally as they sought non-profit, tax-exempt status in a 501c (4) category that permits only 49 percent of their activity to be overtly political.

How is all this playing out among citizens who have been following the D.C. infighting? A CNN poll released on Monday found that a clear majority of Americans, 55 percent, view the controversies as very important, perhaps equal to the Iran-Contra affair but not approaching the epic levels of Watergate. While the tea party movement has seen an uptick in its approval rating, presumably out of sympathy, Hillary Clinton remains immensely popular.

The president's approval rating holds at a strong 53 percent, with 45 percent disapproving. He actually gained a couple of points in the mid-May survey compared to early April. What's more, 58 percent consider Obama a strong leader as well as honest and trustworthy, and -- here it is -- 79 percent view him as likable.

But it's telling that when it comes to policy, a majority of those surveyed disagree with Obama's expansive view on the role of the federal government.

A second recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC News came up with comparable findings -- a majority believe the IRS deliberately harassed conservative groups and that the Obama administration is trying to cover up important details about the terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans last year. Yet, the president's approval rating in this poll holds steady at 51 percent positive, 44 percent negative.

While just over half of Americans think Obama is focusing on issues important to them personally, only one-third believe that of Republicans in Congress.

How to explain the president's continuing popularity despite the fierce headwinds he has encountered? It's the economy, buckaroo. More Americans are optimistic on that front, 56 percent, than at any time since 2009, just before the Great Recession. Half of the public now credits Obama for handling the economy effectively.

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Surely, one shouldn't overstate the importance of polls. Yet, it's remarkable that despite the scandals, despite the failure of new gun safety legislation, the elusiveness of a "grand bargain" on the budget deficit and the still-dicey prospects of immigration reform, the president retains the good will of so many Americans.

But all that can turn on a dime. If the president doesn't rein in the IRS and the Justice Department, consider appointing a new attorney general to replace Eric Holder, reinforce his push for immigration legislation and action on climate control, deal with un-American drone strikes and the Guantanamo horror, while figuring out how to govern effectively despite ongoing Republican sabotage, Democrats could pay a high price in next year's midterm elections. More significantly, the country would drift aimlessly with nothing of consequence being achieved in Washington.

To contact Clarence Fanto: cfanto@yahoo.com or (413) 637-2551.