August 15, 1997

When Washington Works, Incumbents Prosper

Now Fix Education and Social Security

Introduction and Summary

For the first time in a very long time, Americans are happy with the country’s course and it is beginning to pay dividends to the political establishment. Not only are Bill Clinton’s approval ratings approaching Reagan’s at a comparable point, but support for Congressional incumbents is at a decade high, and interest in a third party has fallen to a 15 year low.

A near majority of Americans (49%) are satisfied with the way things are going in the country. That is nearly twice as many as felt that way just a year ago and the first time since the heady days immediately following victory in the Gulf that most of the public is happy with the country’s direction. While not paying close attention to the budget debate and Washington policy matters generally, the public is clearly picking up on improving social and economic trends. People not only recognize that unemployment is down (59%) and that the stock market is up (58%), but majorities also no longer see crime and the budget deficit as worsening problems.

Political opinions reflect these perceptions. Clinton’s approval ratings (59%-32%) are coming close to Reagan’s in the summer of 1986 (63%-28%). This is quite an accomplishment given that Reagan achieved re-election in a 59% landslide, while Clinton failed to win a majority (49%). The Pew Center survey conducted this past weekend also found support for re-electing one’s Congressional representative rising to 66%, which is higher than observed in Center and Gallup surveys in 1996, 1994 and 1990.

Although neither political party has made gains either in affiliation or in congressional voting intentions, the percentage of Americans thinking a third party is needed tumbled to 47% from 58% a year ago. At the same time, the survey found increased public awareness of bi-partisan cooperation and a greater endorsement of divided government than in previous polls.

The President’s personal image has been boosted by the budget agreement. While Clinton scandals have not been purged from the public’s mind, news about policy issues (23%) is now being spontaneously recalled as often as the President’s problems (24%). Earlier in the year, when respondents were asked to cite anything they had heard about the President in the news, scandal mentions (32%), mostly Whitewater, far outweighed policy mentions (10%). In the current survey the budget agreement dominated policy related answers. News about allegations of sexual harassment was more often recalled than Whitewater or the fund raising charges. (In that regard, strong public interest in the campaign finance scandal is half as great as it was before the Thompson hearings began.)

The President is getting much higher marks from the public for his abilities, but his personal character evaluations remain low. Fully 64% of Pew respondents associated the phrase “able to get things done” with Bill Clinton — a 23% point improvement on this measure since the fall of 1994. But, as in earlier surveys, only 47% describe him as trustworthy and 45% as someone who keeps his promises.

The Republican Congressional leadership has not reaped any benefits from the positive climate of national opinion. While approval ratings for GOP leaders have rebounded since June, when they slipped following the party’s perceived mishandling of the disaster relief bill, their 42%- 44% rating is well below the President’s public evaluation and has not increased significantly over the past six months. With a considerable percentage of the public aware of bipartisan cooperation, undoubtably much of this has to do with opinion of Newt Gingrich. The Speaker’s favorability rating remains as low as 30%.

Budget Legislation Cheered

A 75% majority of Americans have heard about the balanced budget legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton, and they approve of it overwhelmingly — 70% vs. 18% who disapprove and 12% who are undecided.

Approval of the budget legislation is strong across the board. Equal proportions of Republicans and Democrats express approval — 72%. The tax cuts and spending initiatives hold appeal for upper, middle and lower income Americans, but those making over $50,000 a year show the most enthusiasm. Non-whites are the only group expressing significant opposition to the budget legislation — 35% disapprove, while a bare majority (52%) approve.

When asked to rate the importance of the balanced budget legislation relative to other recent government accomplishments, the budget agreement ranks at the top. It is clear that, in spite of cynicism toward government and elected officials, the public truly values several of the initiatives undertaken in recent years. Eight in ten say the Kassebaum-Kennedy health insurance “portability” bill, which allows people to keep their health insurance even if they lose their job or change jobs, has been very important for the country. Fully 74% rate the budget agreement as very important for the country. The Family Leave Act, welfare reform and the minimum wage increase are also viewed as very important accomplishments by strong majorities of Americans (68%, 67% and 64%, respectively). A narrow majority (52%) view the recent deal between several state attorneys general and the tobacco industry as very important for the country, and even fewer place such value on the new television ratings system advocated by the President (34%) and the decision to expand NATO membership (27%).

The balanced budget agreement and the health insurance portability law top the list of government actions that have been most important personally for Americans and their families (34% and 24%, respectively). The Family Leave Act is judged most important by 12% of the public, followed by the minimum wage increase (9%) and welfare reform (8%).

Men and women differ significantly in their assessments of the importance of these government initiatives. A plurality of men (41%) say the budget agreement has been most important to them personally. Women are more evenly divided on the issue: 28% name the budget agreement, but an equal proportion cite the Kassebaum-Kennedy bill. Another 14% of women name the Family Leave Act.

More affluent Americans also place more value on the balanced budget legislation. Half of those with a college education say the budget agreement has been most important for them personally, compared to 36% of those with some college education and only 27% of those who never attended college. Those with less education tend to place considerably more value on the minimum wage increase than the better educated.