Clinton's approval ratings slip after Balkans attacks

Polls indicate drops below 60-percent level

War In Yugoslavia

April 22, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's once-unshakable job approval ratings are beginning to slide, pulled down by the public's concerns about the financial and human costs of the air war in Yugoslavia and by rising doubts that NATO bombing alone will achieve peace.

A poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 56 percent of Americans approve of the way the president is performing, still a majority but down from a 62 percent approval rating in mid-March. Clinton's 56 percent level is his lowest since June 1997. The Pew poll, taken last Thursday through Sunday, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The Pew findings were similar to those of a Newsweek poll taken Thursday and Friday, which found Clinton's approval ratings slipping to 57 percent, from 63 percent the week before.

While the numbers are not considered bleak, public opinion analysts see the slide as significant, given the prospect of a protracted involvement in the Balkans that could further diminish Clinton's popularity.

All of last year, as the president was buffeted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment hearings, his approval ratings remained solidly above 60 percent, defying expectations that the public would eventually turn against him.

The linkage to wariness over Kosovo appears to be clear. The decline in Clinton's job approval rating is directly attributable to those who disagree with his stewardship of foreign affairs, said Andrew Kohut, the Pew Center's director. Approval of Clinton's handling of foreign policy has slipped from 56 percent in mid-March to 51 percent.

While 62 percent of those polled in the Pew survey say they approve of NATO air strikes, 66 percent now indicate that they are "very worried" about U.S. casualties, up from 55 percent in March.

"It's instructive," Kohut said. "It's a hint of the potential for this issue to really change public opinion about the Clinton presidency the way the scandal never did."

It is far from clear how Clinton, a president famous for his close attention to polling, might shore up his approval ratings. Americans' support for air strikes is actually rising, even as their concern about the conflict deepens.

Most Americans -- 53 percent -- say they believe the air strikes are making the Serbs less likely to agree to a peace plan. And about the same number say that bombing alone will not force Serbian support for a peaceful solution even over the long run.

Two-thirds of the public say ground troops will ultimately be needed, suggesting that Clinton would not improve his public position simply by pulling the United States out of the conflict.

"People are not saying we should be tending to our own garden," Kohut said. "What this says is that people want a successful outcome."

Clinton's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said he believes the president is unaware of the polling figures and does not really care about them.

"This is important work that he's doing, and I don't think he's concerned" about his approval ratings, Lockhart said.

Clinton came into the White House with no military service and virtually no foreign policy experience, noted Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion specialist at the American Enterprise Institute. Compounding those initial weaknesses, she said, was the fact the Clinton is the first truly post-Cold War president.

He thus cannot fall back on rhetoric against the Soviet Union or communism to shore up his foreign policy standing. And he has faced a steady diet of ethnic and regional conflicts that in previous presidential administrations had been kept in check by the Cold War superpower standoff.

To Americans, "there's a sense that the president is just reacting, that he doesn't really have a plan," Bowman said.

Still, public opinion experts caution, Clinton should not be terribly concerned yet.

Kosovo has not turned into the quagmire of Vietnam, which dragged President Lyndon B. Johnson's approval ratings down to 35 percent in August of 1968, according to Gallup poll statistics. The Iran-Contra scandal sent President Ronald Reagan's approval ratings plunging from 63 percent in October of 1986 to 47 percent by early December of that year.

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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