By Dan Balz
Bombarded by round-the-clock coverage and polled from every angle, Americans already have come to firm conclusions about the Lewinsky matter that pollsters say only a bombshell revelation is likely to change. They believe the president had sex with the former White House intern, they think he has lied about it and they still approve of the job he's doing running the country.
Still, the president has suffered significant personal damage -- a "character gap," as one analyst describes it -- as a result of the Lewinsky investigation, according to numerous measures of public opinion, and he faces the prospect that his presidential legacy will be shaped as much by this and other scandals that have plagued his administration as by what he has done in office.
In the latest Pew survey, 70 percent of those questioned said Clinton probably or definitely had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, and 66 percent said he probably lied about it in his deposition in the Paula Jones case last January. Seven months ago, 52 percent said they believed Clinton and Lewinsky had a sexual relationship, and 49 percent said they thought Clinton had lied about it under oath.
But the most recent round of polls that have cascaded forth in the days before Clinton's grand jury testimony underscored how little the scandal has done to tarnish his approval rating. Pew's survey pegged it at 63 percent; Gallup said last week it was 64 percent; Newsweek, in a poll released yesterday, found it at 59 percent.
Public interest in the scandal peaked in January and has not been rekindled either by the immunity deal that led to Lewinsky's appearance before the grand jury 10 days ago or the relentless media surrounding Clinton's testimony Monday at the White House.
"Once they're satisfied they know what happened, and think they know all the facts they need to know, they don't want to hear about it, and we passed that a long time ago," said Republican pollster Robert Teeter. "I really don't know anybody who is interested in this story anymore."
The question White House advisers, elected politicians and party strategists are weighing this weekend is whether anything Clinton says Monday, or anything independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr reports to Congress later, could alter what has been a consistent pattern of opinion throughout the ordeal.
Most analysts of public opinion say it will take more than a Clinton admission of a sexual relationship or positive DNA evidence on the dress Lewinsky turned over to prosecutors to jolt people enough to change their belief that the matter does not warrant impeachment proceedings in Congress.
But given that President Richard M. Nixon saw his approval rating more than cut in half in 1973 because of Watergate and that President Ronald Reagan's fell from 67 percent to 44 percent during the Iran-contra scandal, Kohut offered this word of caution as the investigation enters a crucial stage: "I don't think we should take the public for granted and say nothing could change their minds about Bill Clinton on this. We've never been in a situation where a president has been put in this place."
Public conclusions about the basic elements of the investigation have produced a president who is believed by the public to be stronger than ever in some measures of leadership and how he handles his responsibilities -- and yet battered personally by an eroding judgment about his morals and honesty. Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute put together a series of charts measuring what she labeled "The Character Gap" between Clinton's lofty approval ratings and growing public disgust with his personal behavior. A few snapshots of her findings are illustrative.
In the first year of Clinton's presidency, public belief in his honesty and trustworthiness ran about 6 to 9 percentage points above his job approval rating. In the latest Gallup poll, it runs 30 percentage points behind his job approval rating.
Throughout 1993 and 1994, the relationship between the president's job approval rating and the question of whether Clinton "shares your values" was at rough parity. Today job approval outstrips the other measure by at least 20 percentage points.
Bowman's analysis found one other striking example of how Americans judge Clinton. A question that has been used by pollsters during recent presidencies gives people four options for rating a president and his policies. They can say they like him personally and approve of his policies; like him personally but don't like his policies; dislike him personally but approve of his policies and dislike him personally and disapprove of his policies.
During Reagan's sixth year in office, 53 percent said they liked him personally and liked his policies and 21 percent said they liked him personally but did not approve of his policies.
For Clinton, a dramatically more negative pattern has emerged. In an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last April, 33 percent of those surveyed said they liked Clinton personally and approved of his policies, while only 2 percent said they liked him personally and disliked his policies. But 45 percent, the largest single group, said that while they approved of his policies, they did not like Clinton personally.
Clinton's approval rating has remained strong for some obvious reasons, including the healthy economy (although the recent fall in the stock market and the ongoing Asian and Russian economic problems threaten that) and a public largely disengaged from politics. But Frank Newport, who directs the Gallup surveys, offered a novel theory as to why Clinton's approval rating has remained so buoyant throughout the Lewinsky investigation.
"It's Clinton's war," Newport said. He said the investigation -- and the partisan conflict between the White House and Starr's team -- has given Clinton "the environment he needed to get a positive evaluation. It's a perspective of separating the incident from how he's handling the incident. The public is giving him a lot of credit for how he's handling this incident."
Republican pollsters dispute that public opinion has been fairly consistent throughout the scandal, pointing to the decline in Clinton's standing with many Americans. Bill McInturff said in his firm's most recent survey Clinton's personal standing hit an all-time low with retired men, independents, suburban women and voters in the Farm Belt.
He said that if the events of this week or the conclusions in Starr's report begin to lower Clinton's overall approval rating, it likely would be seen first among those groups of voters and that would have serious implications in the fall elections. "It would start having real consequence for Democrats because the president's standing would be eroding with those very important swing groups," McInturff said.
But Democratic pollsters said their GOP counterparts were seizing on flimsy predictors of political behavior in citing Clinton's declining personal attributes. "The job approval number, for 40 years, has been the single most important barometer of a president's health," said Mark Mellman. "There's one number that's tried and true."
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said, "I don't think there's a single incumbent Democrat who worries about this costing them their office in November, in part because I don't think they hear about it at all from the voters."
Garin said, however, the coverage of Clinton's testimony may have robbed Democrats of the chance to talk about health maintenance organizations or Social Security during the August recess. "It's clearly harder to break through with those messages right now," he said. "My impression is that we're sort of creating an electorate of news avoiders in part because people don't want to hear very much more about this."
As news organizations prepared for blanket coverage of the president's testimony and its aftermath, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Friday asked Americans if they wished they knew more or less than they currently know about the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship. Three in five said they wished they knew less.
And a CBS News poll taken at the beginning of August asked Americans what they thought of the Lewinsky investigation: 63 percent said that whatever may have happened between Clinton and Lewinsky, the country would have been "better off" if the investigation had never started.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company