Clinton Fatigue falls on public, politics

August 20, 1999|By David M. Shribman

WASHINGTON -- Slowly but unmistakably, the public is beginning to succumb to Clinton Fatigue.

You can feel it moving quietly but relentlessly across the capital and the country, changing the national conversation, altering the political landscape.

After seven years -- deep economic despair followed by infectious optimism, soaring rhetoric about high ethics followed by a tumultuous period of allegations, investigations and recriminations -- Clinton Fatigue is taking hold.

Few presidents have dominated the American scene for so long as Bill Clinton.

In this century, only Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan served longer in the White House.

And though the president shows few indications of tiring as he marked his 53rd birthday yesterday, the nation he seeks to govern is showing signs of fatigue.

Three Americans out of four say they are tired of all the problems associated with the Clinton administration, according to a survey taken by the Pew Research Center.

Only three Americans out of 10 say they'd like to see another Clinton term. And though an astonishing 78 percent of the public said in February they believed the next president should have different personal qualities than Mr. Clinton's, that figure jumped another 5 percentage points by summer, to 83 percent.

The fatigue factor is an important consideration for contemporary American politics and already is fashioning the political world of the future.

Its prevalence in Washington is emboldening Republican congressional leaders as they gird to confront the president on issues such as a tax cut and Social Security.

Its effects are giving shape to the presidential election, making it more difficult for Vice President Al Gore to argue to extend the Democrats' tenure in the White House.

End of ride

Mr. Clinton's ride on the public-opinion wave is clearly coming to an end. The Pew survey shows that support for the president's impeachment, which was 35 percent in December, now has risen to 44 percent.

In the month the president was impeached, 30 percent of Americans believed he should resign. Now 35 percent say they believe he should have resigned.

On the surface, it's no surprise that Americans should grow tired of any president. The nation has a short attention span, and Mr. Clinton has remained in prime time almost as long as that other cultural guidepost, Seinfeld.

Besides, Mr. Clinton's run is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that he had no honeymoon and that his personal comportment led to the first impeachment of a president in 130 years.

The onset of Clinton Fatigue is significant, if only because the president retained remarkable public-opinion ratings during the most serious challenge to a sitting president since Watergate -- and because the economy continues to roar and the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which sat at 3,256 the morning he was inaugurated in January 1993, now moves well above 11,000.

With news that good, with the economy that sound, with aspirations that high, with the public that content, only strong sentiments of disapproval should be powerful enough to prompt the public to contemplate a change.

But the public appears to be ready. Only 41 percent of Americans, for example, said in February that they believe the next president should have policies and programs that differ from Mr. Clinton's.

By summer, that figure had climbed to 50 percent.

Those findings spell danger for Mr. Gore, who despite a career in the House and Senate is regarded primarily as Mr. Clinton's partner. Indeed, his presence at the helm of the economy is Mr. Gore's principal asset in the 2000 campaign, just as Vice President George Bush's presence at Ronald Reagan's side was his principal asset in 1988.

Tarnished

The big difference, however, is the public was more eager for a third Reagan term in 1988 than it is for a third Clinton term in 2000. And while Mr. Bush was not tarnished by President Reagan in 1988, Mr. Gore plainly is tarnished by President Clinton in 2000.

Thus Mr. Clinton, who has been at the center of American politics since the winter of 1992, clearly is not going to fade from the scene the way many of his predecessors did.

Ordinarily a president's accomplishments and failures give little shape to the next election. The great exceptions were 1968, when Lyndon Johnson's unpopularity hurt Hubert Humphrey's prospects, and 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt's popularity helped his hand-picked successor.

Mr. Clinton not only will affect the presidential election, but the congressional races as well.

Last winter the conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill was that Republicans who supported impeaching the president would be punished by the voters. Now 57 percent of voters say those lawmakers should be re-elected.

And one other place where the president's influence will be unmistakable, though at this time incalculable: the Senate race in New York.

Mr. Clinton may be almost gone, but he will not be forgotten.

David M. Shribman writes a syndicated column.

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