Clinton building `air of goodwill'

Legacy: As the president enters his last six months in office, Americans seem to be looking at him with new regard, and responding to the good he has accomplished.

July 02, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman

WASHINGTON -- The polling numbers seem impervious to change -- ask people if they like President Clinton and they deliver a resounding "no," ask them if he's done a good job and they're quick to give their approval.

But lately, pollsters are detecting a subtle but intriguing shift in the attitudes of Americans toward their scandal-scarred leader: the venom is draining, the emphasis is changing from the personal to the professional, and an impeached, marginalized president once considered the lamest of lame ducks might be feeling the first spark of a revival.

From Middle Eastern peace talks to a Moscow summit to his hard-fought victory on major China trade legislation, Clinton is back on the stage. Vice President Al Gore has set aside past efforts to distance himself from his boss and purposely tied himself to the Clinton legacy on a "prosperity and progress tour."

Even Bill Maher, the biting political comedian from the show "Politically Incorrect," cut Clinton some unexpected slack at a Democratic fund-raiser the night of June 24. "I know politics is rough for everybody who's in it, but this man has taken more crap and been more gracious about it than anybody who has nuclear weapons should ever be asked to."

And Americans are responding to Clinton's resilience.

As one Democratic pollster put it, the American people are starting to see Clinton as "the crazy uncle in the attic," viewed with an undeniable touch of revulsion, but also with affection and a recognition of the good that many people feel he has accomplished.

"There is an air of goodwill," said presidential scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "Newt Gingrich is gone. The fights in Congress are not very serious. [Clinton's] not our hair shirt anymore."

Like its earlier variant, "Clinton Fatigue," this new phenomenon -- call it "Clinton Nostalgia" or just "Contempt Fatigue" -- is hotly debated. Some say it does not exist. The people who have always liked Clinton continue to do so. Those who despise him have lost none of their bile. A bipartisan poll released June 22 by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican pollster Ed Goeas found that 70 percent of Republican voters disapproved of Clinton personally and professionally.

"I haven't noticed any softening," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "They just find him a disgusting human being, not to put too fine a point on it."

But others insist unwavering poll numbers hide an important shift of emphasis, especially among moderate swing voters. Where once Clinton's personal proclivities predominated in public opinion, now it's the professional side of the equation.

"There has been a change over the last six to nine months," said Democratic pollster Al Quinlan, who has studied attitudes toward Clinton in swing-voter focus groups. "And what we're seeing, and it's subtle, is more recognition and a higher priority on performance in office."

"There are no longer the groans," said a Gore adviser who has taken the pulse of focus groups on Clinton for the vice president's campaign. "People will immediately find a way to say something better about him."

In April, a Harris Poll found that if Clinton were allowed to run for a third term, 43 percent of all voters would prefer him as the Democratic nominee, compared with the 39 percent who wanted Gore on the ballot.

Among Democrats, the allegiance was striking. About 60 percent favored Clinton while 34 percent said they wanted Gore as their nominee. A Time/CNN poll in March found that in a hypothetical matchup between Clinton and Bush, the two were dead even, though more recently Bush held a 5-point lead in a Newsweek survey.

Inside the Beltway, the shift has been less subtle. This spring, Washington's chattering classes began debating the term "Clinton Nostalgia," and that debate took off after the president's April 29 bravura performance at the annual White House correspondents' dinner.

Clinton wowed the black-tie gathering of 2,000 journalists, pundits and celebrities with a masterful comedic performance, capped by a self-deprecating video of lonely Bill, wandering through empty White House corridors, watching the laundry, mowing the lawn and washing the limousine.

It was a welcome tonic for many of the journalists who have grown weary of covering the often leaden Vice President Gore and the often tongue-tied Texas Gov. George W. Bush, said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential scholar at the University of New Orleans' Eisenhower Center.

"Some of those skills Bill Clinton has as a politician right now -- that sense of oratory, the ability to move people with rhetoric, his gregariousness -- those qualities are lacking in Gore and Bush," Brinkley said. "So Clinton is looking pretty good."

On May 24, the Democratic National Committee shattered all fund-raising records with a gala "National Tribute" to Clinton that attracted 13,645 guests to a Washington sports arena and raked in $26.5 million.

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