Introduction and Summary
Americans credit a strong economy and, to a lesser extent, a good foreign policy as reasons why they approve of the president’s job performance, even though they increasingly dislike Bill Clinton personally. Further, strong public criticism of the way he has handled the Monica Lewinsky matter has failed to shake Clinton’s approval ratings or increase support for impeachment or resignation.
But Clinton’s performance-based support shows some signs of vulnerability. A 55% majority of the public believes that the current controversy is so great that it is interfering with his ability to govern the country, and 43% think that the president does not command sufficient respect from other leaders to be effective.
Personal judgments are much harsher. Fully 62% of Americans say they don’t like Clinton as a person — up from 53% in early February, when the scandal was first unfolding. Seven-in-ten say his relationship with Monica Lewinsky was very wrong. Nearly as many (68%) say the president should have cleared the air back in January, and an equal number (70%) think his recent admission was compelled by the evidence against him.
But when asked why they continue to support the president in light of their personal view of him, 34% of those with a mixed opinion volunteered the state of the economy, 18% cited his handling of foreign policy and 14% mentioned that Clinton’s private conduct is distinct from his ability to lead the nation. References to foreign policy may reflect opinion of last week’s air strikes against terrorist bases, which met with even broader approval in the Pew Research Center survey than in initial overnight reaction polls.
While a majority believes the magnitude of the scandal is inhibiting Clinton’s abilities, this sentiment has yet to take any toll on the president’s approval rating, which at 62% is as high as it was in early August. Even 38% of Republicans approve of Clinton’s job performance.
Nonetheless, doubts about the president’s moral authority are a potentially serious worry. Substantial minorities believe that Clinton does not have sufficient respect of other leaders (43%) or the moral standing with the public to lead the country (37%). This view of the president is far more powerfully connected to believing that he should resign than is personal criticism of him regarding his involvement with Lewinsky or his handling of the matter. Although Americans see moral leadership as a less important presidential role than managing the economy or stewardship of foreign policy, fully 64% say it is very important.
Say It Ain’t So
For all the frustration with Clinton’s handling of the Lewinsky matter, in many ways the public remains very tolerant of him. Less than half of those who think the president should have admitted his relationship sooner say they are angry with him about it. A denial factor also continues to operate in Clinton’s favor. While the percentage thinking it is definitely true that he had a sexual relationship with the former White House intern jumped from 22% to 49% after his speech, almost as many Americans (43%) continue to say this is only probably true.
By week’s end, the speech itself received a mixed review from the public. As many thought the president blamed others too much (46%) as believed he shouldered enough of the blame himself (45%). Even so, nearly two-in-three Americans (61%) think the speech was enough to end the matter.
Similarly, by a 75% to 21% margin the public wants Clinton to remain in office rather than resign. Solid majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents all favor a continuance of his presidency.
This concurrence notwithstanding, partisanship plays a crucial role in views of the Lewinsky scandal. Although the public is divided as to whether the president’s behavior caused the controversy or whether it was politically inspired, by a margin of 74% to 18% Republicans blame the president. The balance of opinion is just the opposite among Democrats (26% to 62%). Members of the political parties even differ on the wrongness of Clinton’s behavior — only 55% of Democrats see it as very wrong, compared to 86% of Republicans.