Expectations of Clinton Fall, Poll Shows
By Dan Balz and Richard Morin
With the White House buffeted by the fund-raising scandal and with little for the president to show from the Republican-controlled Congress beyond the chemical weapons treaty ratified by the Senate on Thursday, Clinton's second term has gotten off to a slow start.
As a result, little more than one-third of those surveyed (37 percent) said they expect Clinton's second term to be better than the first, a decline of 19 percentage points since mid-January, while 34 percent say it will be about the same as the first, up from 21 percent in January. At the same time, the poll found that 56 percent approve of the job Clinton is doing as president, still among the best ratings of his presidency.
The poll also found that public approval for House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) fell to its lowest point of any previous Post-ABC poll, with just 26 percent of those surveyed saying they approve of the job he is doing as speaker and 23 percent saying they rate him favorably.
The latest finding comes only a week after Gingrich announced that he would pay a $300,000 sanction to the House ethics committee with the help of a personal loan from former senator Robert J. Dole.
And on the eve of this weekend's volunteer summit, the poll found that former Joint Chiefs chairman Colin L. Powell, a chief organizer of the event, remains one of the most popular figures in the country. Three in four Americans (75 percent) give him a favorable rating, while only 6 percent rate him unfavorably.
The absence of real activity at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue so far this year appears to have affected public expectations of Clinton's second term. The White House has invested considerable energy in trying to negotiate a deal to balance the budget, but so far there has been no agreement to show the American people. Meanwhile, Gingrich's problems have distracted the members of the House, resulting in a slow start for the 105th Congress in comparison to the hyperactive 104th Congress two years ago.
Michael Nichols, 43, a computer designer from Cockeysville, Md., said that while he approves of the job Clinton is doing generally, he doubts that much will happen over the next four years. "I just feel that now that he's in his second term, he's kind of relaxed," Nichols said of the president. "I don't think he'll have the drive to finish what he started. I'm pretty sure he'll leave a lot of things unfinished."
"I was hoping he would be better this time around," said Carl Street, 69, of Bloomfield, Mo. "Every time I think he learned from his mistakes, it turns out he didn't. He's become too involved in foreign affairs. He needs to spend more time here at home worrying about our problems."
"I'm concerned about my grandchildren's future," said Dorothy Drater, 77, who lives in rural Tennessee. "He hasn't come through with the big idea yet."
James Campbell, a political scientist at Louisiana State University, said little has happened so far this year "to stir people's imaginations" about Clinton's second term because both parties "have been chastised" by voters in recent elections. "They've steered clear of the big issues," he said. "Now it's a big success if you can get a chemical weapons treaty approved."
Robert Dallek, a historian and biographer of President Lyndon B. Johnson, said Clinton's performance this year has left the public without a clear sense of direction. "I don't think people see an agenda that's compelling, that tells people there's going to be a dramatic breakthrough or change from his first term," he said.
David Boisitis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said Clinton has been slow to lead on big issues, such as reining in the growth of entitlements programs like Social Security, even though he said the conditions for making changes are better today than in Clinton's first term.
"I don't have much confidence in Clinton to seize the moment," Boisitis said.
White House senior adviser Rahm Emanuel said the sharp drop in expectations reflected a combination of the euphoria of inauguration week and the fact that things are only now beginning to happen in Congress. He said Clinton's strong approval rating was a better measure of public impressions of the president.
"I differ strongly with the notion that this is a slow start," Emanuel said. "I think the job approval is a reflection that people see that we're making progress addressing the issues that are important to the American people."
Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution said he disagreed with those who say the slow pace has affected expectations for Clinton. Instead, he said, the poll suggests the president's standing is more fragile than the approval rating indicates. "It gives pause to the approval ratings to me," Hess said. "It suggests that he really is and has been on a high wire without a safety net."
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