Cover Story

Do we love the rascal?

The president's much-touted job approval ratings mask a deep public ambivalence: While voters register disgust with Clinton the man, they say they are pleased with Clinton the president. But polling data showing public concern over his honesty, values, and moral leadership receive little emphasis in daily journalism. In those categories, he is at rock bottom. Here's a closer look at some of the underreported polls.

Issue: "Clinton's great escape," Feb. 6, 1999

It was a moment made for the television cameras: President Clinton, in his State of the Union speech, pausing to acknowledge the contributions of his longsuffering wife. As he applauded-his eyes misty, his gold wedding band glinting in the spotlights-he mouthed three words very deliberately in her direction. I love you.

The first lady, waving to the crowd, didn't seem to return her husband's sentiments. But if overnight polls are any indication, the nation did.

Mr. Clinton's job approval ratings-already the highest of any second-term president in modern times-shot up still higher. More than 80 percent of Americans said they approved of his handling of the economy, a figure never matched by any other president. On the question of job approval, which tracks closely with economic performance, Mr. Clinton scored as high as 76 percent. And more than 8 in 10 people polled said they considered the Clinton administration successful.

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We love you too, Americans seemed to be saying.

But do they really? The poll numbers, as reported by the major media, mask a deep ambivalence toward the superficially popular president. For instance, the same week he achieved his record numbers on handling the economy, he also logged the lowest "honesty" rating in history, with a paltry 24 percent of Americans saying they trust the man they put in the White House. Only 35 percent say the president shares their values, another record low. And barely 20 percent of respondents think Mr. Clinton provides good moral leadership.

Such numbers indicate the public's love-hate relationship with Mr. Clinton may be every bit as complex as the one between the president and his wife. They stand by him because he brings home the pork-er, bacon-but they neither like nor trust the man.

Still, only the most voracious news junkie would know Mr. Clinton is anything but wildly popular because the major media rarely report fully on the public's schizophrenic views. For instance, a search of the exhaustive Lexis-Nexis database shows that in the week following the State of the Union address, readers were 12 times more likely to find news reports of the president's record high poll numbers than his record lows.

Why such one-sided reporting? Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, says it's mainly a function of short attention spans. "We pollsters view ourselves like scientists," he explains. "The media have to do an abbreviated job of reporting on any scientific finding, including polling data. We are quite pleased with the way editors and reporters use our polling data, given time and space constraints."

But John Zogby, another prominent pollster, doesn't buy that analysis. "There's really no excuse" for the media's superficial reporting of poll results, he told WORLD. "It used to be said there was no time to explain the nuance of polls. Now that you have all these 24-hour news stations and almost no new news, there is all the time in the world to explain the nuances."

Instead of nuance, the president's poll numbers get the sound-bite treatment, so that one NBC analyst can take the high job approval ratings and report that Mr. Clinton is the "most popular" second-term president in 50 years. But job approval, Mr. Zogby points out, is quite different from popularity. "He's popular in the sense that the alternative is not acceptable," Mr. Zogby says. "But on any number of personal questions, this is not a popular president. People would not hire Bill Clinton as CEO, they would not want him dating their daughter, they do not see him as a role model for their kids."

The latest Zogby poll, however, gives the president an overwhelming 61 percent job approval rating-9 to 15 points lower than some other polls, but impressive nonetheless. Mr. Zogby, who is himself a Democrat, hurries to add that this doesn't mean as much as the White House might like the Senate to believe. "Job performance is a passive reading. If people feel the country's going in the right direction-there's no war, the economy's okay-the guy at the top gets the credit." Indeed, Mr. Newport of the Gallup poll acknowledges that since the time of Franklin Roosevelt, job approval ratings have usually mirrored the health of the economy rather than any specific actions on the part of the chief executive.

Despite the booming economy, just 40 percent of respondents in the latest Zogby poll said they were proud to have Mr. Clinton as president, compared to 42 percent who said they were ashamed. And the barest majority of Americans-51 percent-have an overall favorable view of their leader. "We've seen him in the high 60s on the favorable side, so there's definitely been damage done [by the impeachment hearings]," Mr. Zogby says.


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