President's Ratings Register a Setback
By Richard Morin and Dan Balz
While the president's overall standing remains strong, the poll found signs that the fund-raising controversy has begun to affect public attitudes toward his presidency.
Clinton's job approval rating fell from 60 percent in late January to 55 percent in the current poll, the first drop of that size after roughly two years of improvement in the president's standing.
The findings come after a series of embarrassing disclosures about White House fund-raising, including the release of the names of those who were overnight guests there, an acknowledgment by Vice President Gore that he used his West Wing office to make calls to contributors and the revelation that Margaret A. Williams, Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff, accepted a $50,000 check for the Democratic National Committee at the White House.
Large majorities said it was wrong for Clinton to reward big campaign contributors with coffees and overnight stays at the White House, and for Gore to make fund-raising calls from his White House office. Follow-up interviews with some of those surveyed punctuated those findings.
"I don't think any one party should use [the White House] to collect money," said Carmen Thompson of Bloomington, Ill. "It's very poor. It may not be illegal. But it seems to me it is unethical and it should be illegal."
"Why should those privileged people get it?" asked Betty Reckelberg of Green Bay, Wis. "It should be an honor for people who are doing good for the country. . . . Why is it only that money buys you these things? Why isn't it good deeds that buy you a night in the White House?"
"Morally, I think it's wrong," said Ruben Gonzalez of El Paso, Tex. "Every president's been breaking a law here and there. And it's matter of who gets caught."
A majority of those surveyed believe that neither Clinton nor Gore broke any laws. And the overwhelming majority believed that Republicans were as guilty as Democrats of questionable fund-raising practices.
But even though they did not believe the president or vice president violated the law, six in 10 surveyed said they favored the appointment of a independent counsel to investigate foreign campaign contributions to Clinton and the Democrats, rather than leaving it to the Justice Department. Attorney General Janet Reno has opposed appointing an independent counsel.
A total of 1,004 randomly selected adults were interviewed March 6-9 for the Post-ABC News survey. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The survey suggests that on most measures, Clinton's performance as president has slumped in recent weeks. According to the survey, 55 percent of those interviewed said they approved of the way he was handling the economy, down from 61 percent six weeks ago. And the proportion who approved of Clinton's handling of foreign affairs also dropped, from 54 percent in January to 50 percent in the latest Post-ABC News poll.
The survey suggests that Clinton's job approval rating declined most among the oldest and the youngest survey respondents. Among political independents, his rating dropped from 61 percent in January to 53 percent in this poll. His rating was unchanged among moderates but declined among liberals and conservatives. Regionally, his sharpest decline occurred in the East.
Still, 49 percent to 38 percent, Americans say they trusted Clinton more than the Republicans in Congress to deal with the country's major problems. And despite softening reviews of his performance, six in 10 said they still like Clinton. The survey found that nearly as many respondents have a favorable impression of Gore, and almost six in 10 said they believe he has the "honesty and integrity" to serve as president some day. Slightly more than half -- 53 percent -- said Clinton has the honesty and integrity to be president.
Whatever their views toward Clinton and Gore, those surveyed were less generous toward the GOP-controlled Congress.
Six in 10 said they disapproved of the way Congress has been doing its job. And while a similar proportion think Clinton is trying to work with the Congress, little more than a third believe congressional Republicans are trying to work with the president.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) remains highly unpopular, with only a third expressing approval for the job he is doing as speaker. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is more popular, with 44 percent saying they approved of his performance, 24 percent expressing disapproval and the remainder saying they have no opinion.
The survey also suggests problems ahead for the president and congressional leaders as they attempt to reach agreement on a balanced budget. Almost three quarters of those surveyed said the country would be better off with a balanced budget. But the public offered lawmakers no clear road map as to how to balance the government's books. Those surveyed remain divided over whether to cut spending on defense, while two in three opposed cutbacks in federal entitlement programs.
On the fund-raising controversies, Americans were unequivocal in their opposition to the use of the White House to raise campaign money. More than seven in 10 said it was "inappropriate" for Clinton to do what he did.
"I don't think any party, Republican or Democrat, should essentially charge people to stay in the White House," said Michael Scoville of Girard, Ohio. "I don't think that should have a monetary value. . . . I voted for him. I should be entitled as someone else even though I can't afford to give $50,000."
"They're letting their friends stay in the White House and I think it was an unfair advantage against [Robert] Dole" in last year's presidential election, said Amy Prior of Fort Polk, La. "Any American would love to stay where the president lives. I'd love to stay there for a night."
Those interviewed were nearly as critical of Gore for making telephone calls from his White House office soliciting big campaign contributions, with six in 10 calling the action "inappropriate." Gore said he charged the calls to a Clinton-Gore campaign fund.
Still, fewer than a third of those interviewed said what Clinton or Gore did was illegal. "I have people come to my house and visit me, I don't see anything wrong with it," said James Ward of Birmingham, Ala.
"If the president approved of what Gore did, if he was doing what he was told, it was okay," said Jean Bingham of Manhattan, Kan.
But others said Clinton and Gore's actions were, in their eyes, illegal. "It seems pretty obvious that the law says you can't raise money on federal property," said Mary DeWitt of Houston. "It seems to me that's what [Gore] was doing. So, too, with the White House coffees. . . . I have read the law quoted in newspapers and on TV and it seems that is exactly what they were doing. It's black and white."
Americans were divided over whether recent disclosures would lead to serious campaign finance reform.
"When it comes to their money, it doesn't seem like any action is being taken," said Kim Davis, of Mentor, Ohio. "It doesn't seem like either one wants the truth to come out. I don't think either one is serious about it."
But Americans were less certain whether big contributors got anything from the Clinton administration other than hospitality. Nearly half -- 47 percent -- suspect Clinton "changed policies" for some of the major donors while nearly as many disagreed.
Rhonda Ford of Spokane, Wash., is one of those who thinks contributors got nothing more than a memory. "Clinton had his own philosophy in place from the start. Now he won't be running for anything so he doesn't have to listen to what they want."
But others find it just as unlikely that contributors weren't favored in more substantive ways by the Clinton administration. "Of course they get something," said Rita St. Clair of Elkhart, Ind. "Why would they give so much money?"
Assistant director of polling Mario A. Brossard contributed to this report.
WEIGHING WHITE HOUSE ACTIONS
Q: Are you satisfied that President Clinton has the honesty and integrity to serve effectively as president?
Total Dem. Ind. GOP Yes 53% 79% 52% 19% No 45 18 45 78
Q: Have you heard or read about Clinton allowing donors who contributed money to his reelection campaign to stay overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House or inviting donors to attend private receptions and coffees at the White House?
Total Dem. Ind. GOP Yes 84% 81% 84% 91% No 15 19 15 9
Q: Do you think he did anything illegal?
Total Dem. Ind. GOP Yes 31% 17% 31% 50% No 59 75 58 43
Q: The Democratic National Committee has returned $3 million in questionable or improper campaign contributions. Do you think they knew all along that these contributions were questionable or improper, or was it simply sloppiness and poor record-keeping?
Total Dem. Ind. GOP Knew all along 54% 38% 53% 75% Simply sloppiness 37 48 38 21
Q: Do you think the Clinton administration accepted campaign contributions in the White House?
Total Dem. Ind. GOP Yes 65% 49% 68% 84% No 26 38 22 14
Note: Percentages may not add to 100 because `no opinion` responses have been omitted. The results of this Washington Post/ABC News poll are based on telephone interviews conducted March 6-9, 1997, with 1,004 randomly selected adults nationwide. Margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points. Sampling error is but one source of many potential errors in this or any other opinion poll. Interviewing was done by Chilton Research of Radnor, Pa.
-- Compiled by Mario A. Brossard
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company