Clinton can't capitalize on high job approval ratings

August 12, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The White House may be forgiven if it still takes comfort in these crazy public opinion polls. The latest Gallup Poll shows that 64 percent of Americans approve of President Clinton's performance in office, though 75 percent believe he is lying when he says he did not have a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

That approval number hasn't declined, moreover, although the number of Americans who believe Mr. Clinton had sex with Ms. Lewinsky has increased from 66 to 75 percent in the past month.

The obvious inference is the one politicians have been drawing from the polling figures for the past six months -- that is, that the voters don't care about what went on between the president and the White House intern so long as he is doing his job.

Logically, the next step would seem to be to ask why special prosecutor Kenneth Starr is going to such extraordinary lengths to prove a sexual relationship. And that, of course, is just the question the White House would like to see the American people and the Congress asking as Mr. Starr continues hauling witnesses before the grand jury.

Polling figures are not, however, the only measure of a political leader's position and potential for getting things done.

For one thing, as those who take the Clinton polls know best, the surveys tend to describe a body of opinion as more fully developed than it may be. Respondents to polls are often asked for opinions about matters on which they have never formed an opinion or have only the most tentative thoughts.

Indeed, one of the dirty little secrets of the political polling business is that huge numbers of Americans are paying little or no attention to government and public affairs. Most Americans can't name their congressman, for example.

Given these reservations with polling, it is quite possible that Americans' positive view of Mr. Clinton's performance in office might not be as divorced as it appears now from the question of his personal conduct. If gamy details of the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship come to light, voters may decide his job performance is not what they thought it should be.

One of the other risks in relying too heavily on polls is that they can be extremely volatile. Many times a single episode -- what politicians call "a defining moment" -- turns public opinion toward a political leader radically in one direction or another. Starr Finally, public opinion can be manipulated. Up to this point, Mr. Clinton's Republican adversaries in Congress have generally kept their distance from the Lewinsky controversy. They believe the press will carry the ball in giving the salacious details, and the Republicans don't want to risk the appearance of behaving in a partisan way.

Nonetheless, pressure is growing on Republicans who have substantial connections to the religious right, those conservative Christian fundamentalist groups that have become increasingly influential within the party. For these voters, attacking Mr. Clinton on his moral standards and personal conduct is important. And such attacks, even coming from an ideological extreme, ultimately will be reflected in the poll figures.

Political professionals are fully aware of how capricious opinion can be. Thus, Democrats in Congress may be less impressed by the president's high approval ratings now than the possibility that some other shoe is going to drop and change the equation dramatically.

Ever since Mr. Clinton defeated Bob Dole in a walkaway election in 1996, the question has been whether and when the president would use his influence with the electorate to rally public opinion for some major initiative -- perhaps a serious attempt to protect the Social Security system or, less ambitiously, an attempt to reform campaign finance laws.

Immediately after his re-election, however, Mr. Clinton showed no inclination to spend his political capital for any purpose. And he was quickly put on the defensive by the disclosures of egregious excesses in fund raising for his own campaign.

That has all been blotted out now by the Lewinsky case. No matter what his approval rating, the president cannot expect to spend one day testifying to a grand jury and the next asserting national leadership on an issue as important as Social Security. A 64 percent job approval rating is something any president would relish. But Bill Clinton is not in a position to use it.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 8/12/98

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