NSA surveillance story cuts into Obama’s popularity with young voters

Controversy over the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs is eroding President Obama’s popularity — particularly among young voters.

Some polls show a double-digit drop in Obama’s approval rating since Edward Snowden revealed NSA secrets, weakening the president ahead of fall fights with congressional Republicans over the budget and immigration.

Polling taken by The Economist and YouGov finds a 14-point swing in Obama’s approval and disapproval rating among voters aged 18-29 in surveys taken immediately before the NSA revelations and last week. Overall, the swing in Obama’s approval rating moves just four points.

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A USA Today/Pew Research poll released in June found that young voters were significantly more likely to support Snowden's decision to leak classified material. While 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said exposing the surveillance programs served the public good, just 36 percent of those over 65 said the same.

Americans under 29 said by a 50-44 percent margin the U.S. should not pursue a criminal case against him, while every other age bracket said the government should. Younger Americans were also more likely than any other age group to disapprove of the NSA's surveillance programs overall.

“Younger voters tend to believe the Internet should be an area of free speech and free communication, and the idea that the government is looking into what you’re doing is distasteful — and particularly distasteful if run by a president they voted for,” said Julian Zelizer, a political science professor at Princeton University.

“The narrative also goes against the fundamentals of President Obama, representing status quo politics and more of the same kind of policies that existed under President Bush, so Obama ceases to be an agent of change,” he added.

Young adults who were children or teenagers when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks took place are also less likely to be less sympathetic to NSA anti-terror programs, said Southern Methodist University professor Cal Jillson.

“It’s their parents who were shocked to their core by 9/11, while I think younger voters probably have factored in 9/11 as a historical event but are more concerned by today’s NSA pervasive presence,” Jillson said.

Obama has a degree of political cover from GOP and Democratic leaders who are backing the NSA programs.

Still, it’s clear the White House is concerned about the issue, which Obama has repeatedly tried to control.

Most recently, Obama announced a series of NSA reforms at his Aug. 9 press conference, including that lawmakers narrow and improve oversight of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to collect phone records. Obama also asked Congress to carve out a role for civil libertarians in courts that give government agencies the warrants to grab data from private citizens and companies.

Yet a Rasmussen poll taken after the president spoke found that only 11 percent of voters believed the president’s new policies would make it less likely that the agency would monitor the phone calls of ordinary Americans. Thirty percent said domestic surveillance would likely increase.

A report in The Washington Post last week that the NSA violated its own security protocols on thousands of occasions led House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — who rarely criticizes the administration — to denounce the revelations as “extremely disturbing.”

Stories have continued to dribble out since then, and the president’s upcoming trip to Russia, where Snowden has temporary asylum, will give the issue more oxygen.

“It's not an easily contained story,” Zelizer said. “There's probably more to come.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged the need to win back public support on Monday, saying Obama was “not opposed” to additional measures and safeguards that “would be helpful in inspiring greater public confidence in these programs.”

“If there are steps that we can take to provide greater transparency or additional oversight in a way that it will inspire greater public confidence in them, then the president is eager to work with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to effectuate those changes,” Earnest said.