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What Those Polls Are Telling Us

By Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Sunday, March 22, 1998; Page C01

opinion
The media seems bewildered by recent polls showing that Kathleen Willey's "60 Minutes" interview has not affected public approval of Clinton's handling of his job as president. Commentators predicted that the recent allegations of sexual encounters and Clinton's supposed efforts to deal with them would undercut public confidence in his presidency. Once again, the opposite seems to be the case.

The reason for the disconnection between the pundits and the polls is simple. Those who voted against Clinton in 1992 and 1996 are outraged, and reporters bewildered, by the ability of his supporters and those who fall somewhere in between, to believe simultaneously that Clinton is dissembling about matters in his personal life while at the same time that he's doing a good job as president.

The explanation? As the polls taken since late January have shown with surprising consistency, the pub lic is drawing a clear distinction between private and public character; between the personal and the presidential.

So, for example, 80 percent of a national sample reported in February (Harris poll, Feb. 25) that "in judging Clinton, we should focus on how the country is doing and his policies, and not on his private life." Sixty-five percent "summed up the situation" in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (March 5) by saying that the "public has become more realistic and accepts that political leaders should be judged on job performance not personal life." Sixty-seven percent told the same pollsters that the president "should be able to withhold certain private matters." And a majority (59 percent, New York Times/CBS poll, Feb. 23) found it "understandable [that] he would not tell the truth about his sex life."

The public/private theory has implications for action. If Clinton is guilty as alleged, those who meld the personal and the presidential will call for an institutional penalty -- resignation or impeachment. By contrast, those who separate the personal from the presidential would recommend interpersonal responses such as an admission of wrongdoing and an apology. What those in the former camp see as a high crime, those in the latter are more likely to see as a sin. Conviction is an appropriate response to a crime, confession to a sin. When asked what should be done if "it turns out that the president obstructed justice," 38 percent report that he should either resign or be impeached, 34 percent say he should admit it and apologize, and 21 percent say the matter should be dropped (CBS, March 3).

To this point, those who believe that the allegations should translate into an indictment of Clinton as president have failed to tie the charges to that role. There are signs that may be changing. Thursday, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that "this latest allegation has nothing to do with the president's private life. This is an example of a woman going to a would-be employer and asking for a job." Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) noted that "if what Ms. Willey claims is true, sexual harassment occurred. And sexual harassment at any level is inexcusable." Sixty-three percent of the public agree that if the behavior occurred, it constitutes sexual harassment (CNN, March 16). The same poll showed a 60 percent favorability rating for Clinton and 67 percent job approval, with 61 percent saying that Willey's charges are not more serious than those made by other women.

If someone were to establish, which has not happened so far, that Clinton had sexually harassed a subordinate in the Oval Office, what is now cast as private behavior could be reframed as public and presidential by defining the complainant as employee and Clinton as employer -- an employer whose job description is president of the United States.

In the absence of such a recasting, even if one supposes that Clinton did have an affair, 66 percent believe that is "his business and has nothing to do with his job (ABC/Washington Post, Feb. 19). Even when pollsters explicitly asked about ethics, the public/private distinction holds up, with 59 percent saying that it is "possible for Clinton to be unethical in his personal life while maintaining integrity as president" (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 1).

What this means is that an individual can believe that the alleged behavior occurred and regard it as disgusting but still approve of the job that Clinton is doing in public office. What makes the beliefs compatible is a conviction that the problematic actions are private and personal and, as such, not relevant to conduct in office. From this perspective, it is possible to claim that if I were Hillary I would throttle him, but also to confirm, that if I had to do it all over again, I would still vote for him.

Why the distinction between the personal and the presidential? In part, because revelations about the sex lives of presidents from FDR through JFK and LBJ have lowered public expectations about marital fidelity in the White House. Eighty-eight percent reported (Harris, Feb. 25) that "other presidents have had equally bad private lives." Based, in part, on the conclusion that some of the nation's great presidents have led less than exemplary private lives, 84 percent have told surveyors that "someone can be a good president even if you disapprove of his personal life" (CBS/New York Times, Feb. 23).

And it is possible that some have concluded that those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, a notion borne out by the finding that half think that Clinton's moral standards are the same as that of the average married man (Time/CNN poll, Jan. 30).

Nor do the allegations break an implicit compact that candidate Clinton forged with voters. As pollster Peter Hart observed in a Washington Post interview, "You're assuming that the American public at some stage said that this is a person of high moral values. In truth, they've never believed that."

As long as the public judges the allegations "more a private matter to do with the president's personal life rather than a public matter to do with his job," as 64 percent did in mid-February in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey (2/16), high confidence in his conduct of the presidency can co-exist with doubts about the truthfulness of his responses to the various charges.

The public/private distinction reconciles otherwise inconsistent responses in that single poll. Two-thirds said they believed it is very important for the president to provide moral leadership, and at the same time thought that he was hiding something about Lewinsky and at the same time approved of his work as president. Perhaps in a world which divides the private and the public, moral leadership is defined as "understanding the problems of people like you," which 63 percent in a February ABC/Washington Post poll said describes Clinton, as opposed to having "high personal moral and ethical standards" -- a threshold only 28 percent thought Clinton met.

The public/private distinction works to Clinton's advantage in a second way when the public perceives, as it does, that those raising and investigating the allegations have violated privacy rights.

There appears to be a public suspicion that the press also has intruded into private territory. What some in the press regard as investigative journalism seems to many to be simple voyeurism. More than two-thirds of those surveyed think the media should stop reporting on the sex lives of public figures, holding that this should not be a public issue (Fox, Jan. 29).

Kathleen Hall Jamieson is dean of the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. She is the co-author of "Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good" (Oxford, 1997).

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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