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President's Popularity Hits New Highs

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By Richard Morin and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 1, 1998; Page A01

President Clinton has never been more popular with the American people, despite the controversy now surrounding him, and the country is feeling better about itself than it has in more than two decades, according to a new Washington Post poll.

A majority of Americans also agree that the president's political enemies are "conspiring" to bring down his presidency by pressing for the investigation into allegations that Clinton may have lied under oath about having a sexual relationship with a young White House aide. But almost as many say these conspirators have a powerful ally inside the White House: the president himself.

More than half agree that "Clinton has only himself to blame" for the controversy -- and six in 10 suspect that the Clinton presidency will be remembered mostly for allegations about his personal life and not for the accomplishments of his administration, according to the survey.

Poll Taker
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bill Clinton is handling his job as president?
1 Approve
2 Disapprove
3 No opinion
Poll Taker compares your response to results from the Jan. 28-31 Washington Post poll
"I think it's the president's own fault," said Greg Smith, 36, a systems engineer in Taunton, Mass., who was interviewed for the poll. "I think he's given great ammunition to his enemies."

But Clinton also is doing a "very good job" as president, said Sue Eshelman, 40, a homemaker in Phoenix who also was questioned in the Post survey. The economy is soaring and interest rates are down. She and her husband bought a home. "I like the man."

A total of 1,390 randomly selected adults were interviewed Wednesday through Saturday. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The nationwide poll found that Clinton's job approval rating and personal popularity have never been higher: 67 percent of those interviewed said they approve of the job he's doing as president. More than half -- 55 percent -- said they're satisfied he has the honesty and integrity to serve as president, identical to his standing last October and up from a Post-ABC News survey last weekend.

Six in 10 Americans also believe the country currently is headed in the right direction. That's the most optimistic reading in the 25 years the question has been asked in public opinion polls and 17 percentage points higher than in a Post-ABC News survey completed immediately before the allegations became public.

But political observers cautioned that the Post poll is merely the latest turn in a wild ride to an uncertain destination that began January 21 with news reports detailing allegations reportedly made by former White House intern Monica Lewinsky that she had an 18-month affair with Clinton.

"His numbers look great, but there's a trap door there," said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. "If these allegations of lying are confirmed, then he begins to run into real trouble. You're going to see the public change its views radically. People really are on the fence here."

The views of survey participants interviewed by reporters supported Jacobs's prediction. "I'm a believer that when there's so much smoke, there's going to be some fire," said George Colvin, 80, a retiree living in Greensburg, Ky. "We've heard quite a bit of accusations, none of which have been proven, but some close to being proved. . . . Hopefully they'll get it cleared up in a few days."

Lies, not sex, remain at the heart of public concern about the scandal. Eight in 10 say they are more concerned over reports that Clinton may have lied under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky than over the claim that the president had an intimate relationship with the young woman.

"I didn't vote for Clinton but I don't think he should be run out of office because he had an affair," said Scott O'Brien, 37, a chiropractor living in Kansas City, Mo. "I think it's getting the most attention because sex sells in America."

But if he lied under oath about the affair, "that's a serious charge and that should be dealt with. I don't think he should get a pass on that."

O'Brien said he is withholding judgment about whether Clinton had an improper relationship with Lewinsky. "People make up stories all the time. More likely, I think there's half truths and there's a little bit of truth in what a lot of people are saying."

Lois Whitehead, 51, an office manager in Pompano Beach, Fla., said she finds the allegations against Clinton unbelievable but not inconceivable. "I just can't believe the man is so stupid to have an affair right under our noses," Whitehead said. "I don't think the man is that crazy, but his morals are questionable."

Esperanza Luna, 46, a probation officer who lives in San Pedro, Calif., said she's deeply torn. "If he has lied under oath, he should be impeached or he should resign."

Luna said she suspects Clinton is lying about his relationship with Lewinsky. But "I'm a little more forgiving than the rest of the country," she said. "If he admits it now, well, I might forgive him."

Those doubts echo the feelings of many Americans. Barely half -- 53 percent -- of those interviewed said they suspect that Clinton and Lewinsky were romantically involved, down from 57 percent in a Post-ABC News survey last weekend. But the number of Americans who think there was no affair has remained unchanged at 34 percent; the difference is that the proportion with no firm opinion has gone from 8 percent to 13 percent in the past week.

Two in three -- 65 percent -- said Clinton should stay in office even if the affair is confirmed, up from 59 percent last week, and 53 percent said he should resign if he lied under oath about a relationship with Lewinsky, down from 63 percent last week. An equal proportion said Clinton should resign if he urged Lewinsky to lie in a sworn court document about their relationship, also down from last weekend.

To many political scientists, the numbers suggest that Americans are behaving exactly like they ideally should: Calmly, deliberately and focused less on Clinton's private life than on his public character, truthfulness and performance in office.

"Often times we don't give the public enough credit," said Robert Shapiro, professor of political science at Columbia University. "It might be surprising in this case, given the full barrage of media attention to the more personal and private. But I think the public has noticed that the issues of perjury and obstruction of justice . . . really stand out as being different from the kind of behavior that Clinton had been accused of or been involved in, in the past."

"The public looks very rational to me, much more sophisticated than we normally think of them as being," said Jacobs, who studies public opinion and the media. "The public strikes me as level-headed and sedate. It's the journalists who seem frantic and mob-like."

The survey suggests that most Americans agree. A majority of those interviewed in the Post survey said they now believe the news media has been unfair to Clinton in its coverage of the scandal. Three out of four said there has been too much coverage.

"There's just been way too much," said Theodore Armstrong, 46, an accountant living in the Bronx. "That's the only thing that's been on the television and in the papers. It's a big story but personally, they've gone overboard."

Garnet Blatchford, 41, a physician in Elkhorn, Neb., disagreed. "I don't think necessarily it's too much or too little. It's big news when it involves the president, so I'd say [it's] about right."

The survey suggests that the scandal that centered last week on sex, lies and audiotape has been further complicated by public doubts about the motives of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and uneasiness over the character and veracity of some of Clinton's principle accusers.

More than half of those interviewed -- 58 percent -- said they had an unfavorable impression of Lewinsky, while just 7 percent said they viewed her favorably. The remainder were withholding judgment.

"At first I thought she was just maybe a young kid and made some bad choices," said Greg Smith of Taunton, Mass. "But the more I hear about her, she seems to have a track record of this type of thing."

Smith specifically mentioned the way Lewinsky looked on the televised snippets of videotape that showed her with the president at public events. " 'Check me out, I'm this close to the president,' " is the message her look conveyed to him, he said.

But others disagreed, saying that Lewinsky neither made bad choices nor a bad impression. "If I were a girl and I had a chance to make it with the president, I'm sure I would," said Robert Howard, 19, of Amarillo, Tex.

Some survey participants sharply criticized Linda R. Tripp, Lewinsky's onetime friend and confidant who triggered the expansion of Starr's investigation into Clinton's intimate life when she gave him tapes of hours of conversations with Lewinsky she secretly had recorded. The tapes reportedly are replete with discussions of the affair Lewinsky claimed to have begun with Clinton in late 1995.

"I think the real villain of the piece is Ms. Tripp," said Susan Brys, 62, a musician in Baton Rouge. "To tape her friend's conversations and go around with it. . . . I think it was unfriendly to say the least, and to some point self-serving."

The survey also found Americans deeply suspicious of Starr, who already had spent three years investigating the so-called Whitewater scandal before two weeks ago expanding his inquiry into whether Clinton may have lied under oath in denying a relationship with Lewinsky, or pressed her to lie about it. Six in 10 said that Starr and his staff are more interested in damaging the president than they are in determining if crimes were committed in connection with the alleged affair.

"I'm sort of tired of this whole Mickey Mouse," said Carolyn Cook, 56, a lunchroom attendant living in Des Moines. "Hasn't the statute of limitations expired, or does he have a blanket thing that he can investigate here until the year 3000?"

For the past week, the administration has targeted Starr as a willing participant in a right-wing conspiracy to bring down the president. Those attacks clearly have born fruit: A majority of those interviewed -- 59 percent -- agreed that "Clinton's political enemies are conspiring to bring down his presidency."

"It definitely does appear to me to be an agenda" to damage Clinton's presidency, said Loretta Bell, a technical engineer who lives in the District. "I feel that this man Starr and the Republicans in general, the conservative media, and all of that has culminated. . . . [so] that it appears as though the president is the focus point of an attack against him."

But Bell, 37, added that Clinton's own actions made him an easy target for his enemies. "It didn't really surprise me when I kept hearing about the same behaviors from this man. I actually never felt his integrity was all that high."

According to the poll, 56 percent of those interviewed agreed that "Clinton has only himself to blame for the scandal." Asked which they believed more -- the controversy was mainly the result of Clinton's own conduct or was mainly the result of his political enemies -- the country was divided: 43 percent say Clinton, 48 percent blame his enemies.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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