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Prepare to Forget About the NSA

The president’s approval rating has dipped, probably because of the NSA surveillance revelations or the accumulated effect of supposed or actual scandals. As Mark Blumenthal has pointed out, the decline probably isn’t as large as suggested by yesterday’s CNN poll, which pointed toward a big, 8 point decline in the president’s approval rating. The real answer might be closer to 2 or 3 points—a more modest dip. The question is whether the recent drop presages a long-term decline in the president’s credibility, or if the president’s approval ratings should be expected to recover. Without additional bad news, a recovery seems likelier.

So far, there’s not much evidence that the “scandals” or controversies of the last few months have much staying power. With the NSA dominating the news of the last few weeks, you could be forgiven for forgetting about Benghazi, IRS targeting, or the AP leaks. The sequester, which prompted an initial decline in the president’s approval ratings, might have also slipped your mind.

Without additional revelations, what’s going to keep the NSA controversy alive? My hunch: nothing, just like the controversies that preceded it. The NSA controversy might be especially likely to dissipate, since Republicans don't appear keen on mounting a sustained attack on a program they have a record of supporting.

There are already signs that the controversies are in the rear view mirror. The New York Times website's frontpage doesn’t include a story about the NSA surveillance program. The Washington Post doesn’t have one either. Without anything new, the media will move onto something else. The upcoming immigration reform fight is an obvious candidate for diverting Washington’s attention, probably for good.

For Obama, no news is good news. The background noise is improving economic confidence, which correlates with presidential approval ratings. It’s possible that additional bad news will renew the downward pressure on the president’s standing—much like the NSA scandal prolonged a rough few weeks for the president, even after the old scandals started to fade. But based on the public’s demonstrably short attention span, more bad news will be needed to keep the president’s numbers down. Otherwise, the economy will eventually bring them back up.