By Richard Morin and Claudia Deane
After having dropped immediately after the scandal broke last Wednesday, the president's overall job approval rating rebounded yesterday about to the level it had been a week ago. In addition, the percentage who said the alleged affair was "not an important issue" increased from 48 percent on Friday to 56 percent yesterday.
While yesterday's results are from a relatively small sample, they indicate that the first wave of scandal news has not sent the Clinton presidency into a free fall.
For most Americans, the crisis enveloping Clinton is mostly about trust, not illicit sex. One in three survey respondents said the alleged affair, even if confirmed, would be a "very important" issue. A majority said the relationship alone, if true, was not reason enough for Clinton to resign or be impeached.
But the overwhelming majority said they would be far more troubled if investigators proved that the president himself had lied or urged others to lie under oath.
"I don't think that if he had the affair, per se, that would really be grounds for impeachment," said Brian Myers, 37, a warehouse clerk in Santa Ana, Calif., who was interviewed for the survey. "The only reason he should be impeached is if he lied under oath."
The poll and follow-up interviews with survey participants suggest that most Americans are withholding judgment about whether Clinton committed perjury or suggested Lewinsky do so. Clinton's personal popularity has fallen only modestly, if at all, since the allegations were made public.
"I don't want to believe any of it, but you know there's room for it," said Girlene Hardee, 69, a retiree living in Dillon, S.C., who was interviewed for the poll. "I just hate to think that anybody, especially him, if they did it . . . [would] tell somebody to lie about it. But I still give him the benefit of the doubt."
The survey found that the percentage of Americans who have a favorable impression of Clinton stands at 54 percent, down from 59 percent in a Post-ABC News survey conducted one week ago. Half of those interviewed -- 51 percent -- said the president has the honesty and integrity to be president, down from 55 percent in October.
A majority -- 59 percent -- said they approve of the job Clinton is doing as president, statistically unchanged from 60 percent in last week's national poll. But while the overall job approval number has not moved, the scandal already has galvanized Clinton supporters as well as his opponents.
Currently 31 percent of those interviewed said they "strongly" approved of Clinton's on-the-job performance, up from 24 percent last week and among the best showings of his presidency. At the same time, the proportion of those who strongly disapprove of his job performance also has increased in recent days.
Clinton's troubles also may be altering the balance of power between the White House and Congress. On the eve of Clinton's State of the Union address, which coincides with the end of a long congressional recess, the survey found that public support for Congress has surged: More than half -- 56 percent -- say they approve of the job Congress is doing, up from 47 percent last week and the highest level of support recorded in Post-ABC surveys since the late 1980s.
A total of 1,537 randomly selected adults were interviewed Friday through yesterday for this survey, which was designed to allow day-to-day comparisons. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
"I'd like to see the president come clean," said Gayl Heinz, 46, of Boxford, Mass., one of those interviewed in the Post-ABC News poll. "I'd like him to say: 'I've made some bad mistakes. I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't have done it, but I'm here to come clean and I'd like to go on and continue my job as president of the United States and get done what needs to get done.' "
Nearly six in 10 survey respondents suspected that Clinton did have an affair. But about half -- 52 percent -- said the issue of infidelity itself was unimportant, and fewer -- 36 percent -- said Clinton should resign the presidency if he did have an affair with Lewinsky.
But Americans clearly are disturbed that Clinton may have lied under oath in a deposition taken in Washington by lawyers for Paula Jones. She has sued Clinton, alleging that he sexually harassed her during a brief hotel-room encounter while he was the governor of Arkansas.
More than six in 10 -- 63 percent -- said Clinton should resign if he gave false testimony. If he lied under oath, more than half -- 55 percent -- said he should be impeached if he refuses to resign.
Six in 10 say the president also should resign if Lewinsky's allegation that he told her to lie in an affidavit in the Jones case is proven true. In the affidavit, the former intern stated: "I have never had a sexual relationship with the president." The country is divided whether Clinton should be impeached if Lewinsky's charge is confirmed: Half of those interviewed said yes; nearly as many disagreed.
Impeachment would be a "waste of time and effort," said Robert Brooks, 45, a banker living in Wausau, Wis. "Even if it's appropriate, I'm not sure it is cost-effective."
The survey found that men were somewhat more likely than women to say that the issue of adultery was very important and to believe that Clinton has lied about the affair Lewinsky has alleged in recorded conversations with a friend. Older Americans were generally more supportive of the president than middle-aged or younger people.
Nearly eight in 10 Republicans and two in three independents say Clinton should resign if he lied under oath. Clinton is even in trouble with his own party: Half of all Democrats -- 53 percent -- said he should resign if he is found to have lied under oath, while 40 percent said he should remain in office.
Slightly smaller majorities of Republicans and independents said Clinton should be impeached, while half of all Democrats said he should not be impeached.
The public also is divided over news coverage of the story of the president's alleged affair with Lewinsky. Half of those interviewed said the media have treated Clinton fairly, while more than four in 10 disagreed.
"I feel like it's been made a bigger deal than it needs to be," said Lisa Pincomb, 29, a mother of three who lives in Caro, Mich. "I don't feel like they're lying to us. They're saying 'allegations' and stuff; they're not misleading."
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