Clinton's popularity dips sharply after first 90 days, polls show President's activism, public's 'pop cynicism' are blamed

April 14, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Princeton Survey Research; Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press)/JOSEPH HUTCHINSON/STAFF GRAPHICWashington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton ventures in public, the mob of squealing well-wishers, autograph seekers and amateur photographers calls to mind a rock star more than a politician. Yet these public displays of adoration obscure a potentially ominous fact of Mr. Clinton's political life:

After three months in office, public opinion surveys show him to be the least popular president since the advent of modern polling.

A poll released today by the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press showed Mr. Clinton's approval rating dropping below 50 percent, a number that un-elected President Gerald R. Ford managed to exceed after three months despite his wildly unpopular decision to pardon Richard M. Nixon.

The question, phrased the same way -- except for the name -- for the past 40 years, is: "Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bill Clinton is handling his job as president?"

Two polls conducted this month by Princeton Survey Research, one of which was done for Times Mirror, showed that 49 percent of Americans said they approved of Bill Clinton. The later of the two polls has Mr. Clinton's disapproval rating rising to 36 percent -- also a record for a new president.

"There are a lot of factors that help explain it, but there's no denying that Clinton's positive to negative ratio is the lowest we've ever seen," said Everett Ladd, director of the Connecticut-based Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.

White House advisers were quick to cite what they believe are some of the reasons for Mr. Clinton's poor showing. "We're doing a lot of tough things," said Paul Begala, a political adviser to Mr. Clinton. "Political capital is not like an egg. If you sit on it, it doesn't hatch. You've got to use it if you want to accomplish things."

Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center, agrees, at least in part. "He's an activist president," Mr. Kohut said. "He's doing things. And presidents who do important things tend to see their approval ratings decline."

But there is a consensus among pollsters and political scientists that Mr. Clinton's low approval rating is no fluke.

It started with his 1992 election, which was a three-way instead of a two-way race, and which he won with only 43 percent of the vote, a lower percentage than any gained by a modern president.

By the end of that election, all three candidates, Mr. Clinton, President George Bush and Ross Perot, had high "negatives," in polling parlance. Partly, this was due to the way they beat up on each other.

Moreover, Mr. Clinton never could quite shake widespread doubts about his trustworthiness.

"It wasn't any one thing," said Mr. Ladd. "It was an accumulation of things. . . . For some it was the draft, for others it was the issue of marital fidelity, for some it was the perception that he altered his course quickly on divisive issues. It detracted from his standing, and though he won the race, he didn't make the sale with a majority of Americans."

Thus, even before he took office, Mr. Clinton's poll numbers weren't anywhere near as high as his predecessors' had been. His stumbling attempt to lift the ban on gays in the military reinforced some of the negative views.

And what could have turned this around -- a dramatic legislative or foreign policy triumph -- has not happened. To this extent, the battle over Mr. Clinton's $16.3 billion economic stimulus package, which is stalled on the floor of the U.S. Senate, is not helping him.

The other half of the equation -- possibly the bigger half -- has nothing really to do with Mr. Clinton's performance, and everything to do with Americans' attitudes toward their leaders, their institutions and themselves. Issues such as abortion and gay rights have polarized the electorate in a way that makes it more difficult for Republican voters to feel kindly about Democratic presidents -- and vice versa.

Conversely, the minute-to-minute news, issues and images being beamed at voters come and go so fast that the public's judgments often seem fleeting, superficial and fickle.

Finally, Americans simply do not seem to be as good sports as they once were. John F. Kennedy won the presidency in the closest popular election in modern history. Yet, in April of 1961, more than three out of four Americans told pollsters that they approved of the way the young Democrat was handling his new job. Only a minuscule 6 percent said they disapproved.

What has changed since then? The Vietnam War, Watergate and a general erosion of Americans' trust in nearly every public institution.

Mr. Ladd calls this phenomenon "pop cynicism." To Larry Hugick, director of polling for Princeton Survey Research, it's a case of Americans becoming collectively less "charitable" in their assessments of one another.

Whatever it is called, it plays havoc with a politicians' popularity.

"You want to know what happened to the old attitude of 'Give the guy a break, he just got the job'?" added Kathy Frankovic, a political scientist and director of surveys for CBS News. "That's the 1970s and the 1960s. That's gone."

THE RATING GAME

Here are the comparable approval ratings of each post-War president after his first three months in office:

Question wording: "Do you approve or disapprove of the way ---------------- is handling his job as president?"

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Approve .. .. Disapprove

HARRY S TRUMAN: . .. .. .. 82% ... .. .. 9%

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER .. .. 73% ... .. .. 10%

JOHN F. KENNEDY . .. .. .. 78% ... .. ... 6%

LYNDON B. JOHNSON .. .. .. 76% ... .. ... 8%

RICHARD M. NIXON ... .. .. 61% ... .. .. 12%

GERALD R. FORD .. .. .. .. 52% ... .. .. 29%

JIMMY CARTER . .. .. .. .. 63% ... .. .. 18%

RONALD REAGAN ... .. .. .. 67% ... .. .. 18%

GEORGE BUSH .. .. .. .. .. 58% ... .. .. 16%

BILL CLINTON . .. .. .. .. 49% ... .. .. 29%

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