November 11, 1999

Retro-Politics

Section 5: The Clinton Legacy and the Next President

Clinton Fatigue

Despite strong approval for Clinton’s handling of his job as president, weariness with the problems associated with the Clinton administration remains high. Seven-in-ten Americans say they are tired of the problems associated with the administration, and fewer than one-third of Americans wish that Clinton could run for a third term.

Across the voter typology, frustration with the administration is predictably higher among the Republican-leaning groups (more than 80% of Staunch Conservatives, Moderate Republicans and Populist Republicans are tired of the administration’s problems) than among Democratic groups (just under 60% of Liberal Democrats, Socially Conservative Democrats, New Democrats, and the Partisan Poor agree). Opinion among the Independent groups is in between, with roughly 70% of New Prosperity Independents and the Disaffecteds expressing weariness with the administration’s problems.

Voters in the Liberal Democrat and New Democrat groups who express fatigue with the Clinton administration nonetheless support Gore by a nearly three-to-one margin. In contrast, Socially Conservative Democrats who are tired of the administration’s problems are more divided — just 53% would vote for Gore, while fully 44% who express Clinton fatigue support Bush.

More generally, Gore’s ties to the Clinton administration bother Republican loyalists more than Democratic defectors. A majority (57%) of Republican voters who oppose Gore cite his ties to the Clinton administration as the main reason why they don’t support the vice president, while 34% cite his personality and leadership abilities. In contrast, only 31% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters who don’t support Gore say it is because of his ties to the administration — fully 58% attribute their opposition to Gore’s personality and leadership ability.

Clinton’s Legacy

Despite weariness with the administration’s problems, opinion on the legacy of the Clinton presidency is slightly more positive now than at the beginning of the year. A majority of Americans (56%) say the accomplishments of the administration will outweigh its failures, up from 50% in January 1999, while 38% say its failures will outweigh its accomplishments. In contrast, Americans were somewhat more mixed in their view of the Reagan administration near the end of his term: 46% predicted that the accomplishments of the Reagan administration would outweigh its failures, and 41% said the opposite.

Among Republican groups, Staunch Conservatives in particular are critical of the Clinton presidency — 83% believe that the administration’s failures will outweigh its accomplishments. About half of Populist Republicans and Moderate Republicans agree, with less than 30% in the Democratic groups saying the same. The Partisan Poor are among the most positive about Clinton’s term in office — 65% wish that he could run for a third term.

Looking Back on Impeachment

A majority (63%) of Americans say Clinton made the right decision to stay in office during the investigation of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky: 34% say he should have resigned. The public’s feelings about the House of Representative’s decision to impeach the president are somewhat more mixed, however, with just over half (55%) saying the House shouldn’t have tried and impeached the president. Some 41% think the House was right to impeach.

Staunch Conservatives again stand out as the group most critical of President Clinton: eight-in-ten (82%) think he should have resigned and 80% say it was correct to impeach him. Just over half of Moderate Republicans and Populist Republicans agree that Clinton should have resigned, while more than 60% think it was right to impeach. Among the Democratic groups, most say Clinton was right to stay in office and that the House was wrong to impeach him.

Presidential Qualities

Little has changed in the past four years in what Americans believe are important qualities in a president. Most people (78%) still agree that sound judgment in a crisis is an absolutely essential quality in a president, more than any other characteristic tested. Smaller majorities identify high ethical standards, compassion for the average citizen and saying what one believes as essential. Just half think that having consistent policy positions is important, while 46% think that forcefulness and decisiveness are necessary.

Today, 38% say experience in public office is very important, up significantly from 30% who said this in 1995. Slightly more Americans today also think experience in Washington is essential (27% up from 21%). The number of people who believe that party loyalty is critical has also increased to 33%, up from 25% in 1995. One-third of the public considers the willingness to compromise to be essential.

Personal integrity is particularly important to voters supporting Bush. Seven-in-ten Bush supporters (71%) say that high ethical standards are a necessary presidential quality, while 60% say it is very important for a president to say what he or she believes, even if it is unpopular. Just over half of those supporting Gore believe either quality is essential. On the other hand, more Gore supporters than Bush supporters think it is essential for a president to have compassion for the average citizen (67% vs. 59%) and be willing to compromise (37% vs. 29%).

Sound judgment in a crisis is considered the most important quality by all the typology groups except the Partisan Poor, 76% of whom say compassion for average citizens is essential. Only 44% of Staunch Conservatives say compassion is essential. Among Republican groups, having high ethical standards is the second most widely cited important quality, while Liberal Democrats, Socially Conservative Democrats and New Democrats choose compassion second.

Presidential Qualities and the 2000 Vote

The personal characteristics voters want to see in a president are linked to candidate preferences. Those who say that high ethical standards are essential are more likely to say they would consider voting for Bush than are those who do not, and they are less likely to support either Gore or Bradley.

In contrast, registered voters who think compassion is an essential presidential quality are stronger supporters of both Gore and Bradley than are those who do not think it is important. Bush’s support is stronger among those who think that compassion is not necessary. A willingness to compromise is correlated with greater support for both Gore and Bradley.

Party loyalty has a particularly noticeable effect among Democratic voters. Among those who say loyalty is essential, fully 80% would consider a vote for Gore, while just 50% might vote for Bradley.

Can the President Make a Difference?

A majority of Americans believe that the person who is elected president can make a difference in dealing with a variety of issues confronting the nation today. Roughly 60% say the president can have an impact on such national problems as violence, racial and ethnic tensions, and low moral and ethical standards. However, the public is less clear on how much the president can do about the problems facing the nation’s families — just 39% say the president can make a difference with such issues as families not staying together and children born out of wedlock, with 56% saying that the person who is elected president can make no difference on these problems.

Since 1995, there has been a slight increase in the number of people who say the president can make a difference on family problems (39% up from 34%) and low moral and ethical standards (60% up from 54%), but the number who say that the president can have an impact on the problem of violence in society has dropped to 58% from 65% in 1995.

More Republicans than either Democrats or Independents say the president can make a difference on moral and ethical standards and on family problems. However, there is little difference in opinion between the parties on the ability of the president to have an influence on ethnic and racial problems and violence in our society.

The President as Role Model

More Americans than in 1995 think the president can address problems with morals and ethics by serving as a role model. Nearly four-in-ten (38%) believe the president can best deal with these issues by serving as a role model, up from 25% four years ago. Just one-in-ten think the president can accomplish more by proposing policy solutions (11%) or drawing national attention to these problems (9%).

Similarly, more Americans believe the president can best address problems facing the nation’s families by serving as a role model than did four years ago — 16% today compared to 9% in 1995 — although most still say that who is elected president makes no difference with these problems (61%).

Republicans in particular see the president as a role model for the country; 56% say this is the way to make the biggest difference on low ethical and moral standards, while 27% say the same about problems facing today’s families. In contrast, 28% of Democrats and 33% of Independents say the president can best deal with low moral standards as a role model, and just one-in-ten say the same of family problems (11% and 12%, respectively).