It's an open question whether President Obama's approval rating will remain unaffected by the scandals currently engulfing his administration. But no matter how Obama himself makes out, the scandals are setbacks for the central goal of his presidency — to restore Americans' faith in the ability of government to solve problems.
For decades, American politics had lived in the shadow of the Reagan Revolution. Even Democratic President Bill Clinton was forced to declare in 1996 an end to the era of big government.
"I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama famously said during the 2008 Democratic primary cycle. "He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the '60s and the '70s, and government had grown and grown, but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating."
This is a bit simplistic, as government continued to expand during the Reagan years and beyond. But it is true that decades of American history helped foster skepticism among Americans about the government's ability to do big things.
Obama's timing was good for an incoming president hoping to reverse this cycle of American history and emerge as the anti-Reagan. The bursting of the housing bubble, financial collapse and ensuing recession created the perfect opportunity for an ambitious liberal president to make the case that the excesses of capitalism were to blame, and that government needed to come to the rescue.
"Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans," Obama observed in his first inaugural address. He warned cynics "that the ground has shifted beneath them" and went on to say that "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works ... "
Obama set out to demonstrate that government can work, but from his first major piece of legislation — the $800 billion stimulus package — his presidency has proved the opposite. The promise of green energy jobs turned into Solyndra.
An ambitious national high-speed rail network evolved into a multibillion-dollar plan for a train to nowhere in central California. His promise of shovel-ready projects would later become the punch line of his own joke: "Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected."
And recently, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and the key Senate author of Obama's signature health care legislation, warned, months before implementation, that the program could be a "train wreck."
Unlike his predecessor, Obama was supposed to be smart. He was supposed to be ethical and judicious in his use of executive power. More than anything, he was supposed to "turn the page" on the ugly chapter of American history known as the Bush era.
As new revelations come out on the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, the IRS targeting of conservative groups and the Department of Justice's war against journalists, the irony for Obama is that the less he's directly implicated, the deeper indictment it is for his governing political philosophy.
After all, if a president were simply incompetent or dishonest, it would be much easier to argue that a change in leadership could lead to better results. But if Obama is a bright, honest and decent man, yet the government has gotten so big that low-level bureaucrats can go rogue and choose to target groups based on their ideologies, then there's a much more fundamental problem.
Philip Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.