February 24, 2001

Bush, Upstaged and Losing a Crucial Moment

By Andrew Kohut, Director
Special to The New York Times

The conventional wisdom that President Bush is benefiting from bad news about Bill Clinton is on increasingly shaky ground as the controversies over Mr. Clinton’s pardons grow rather than abate. If anything, as Mr. Bush finds himself vying with his predecessor for public attention, he is losing precious time to establish public support for his agenda.

Mr. Clinton has captured so much attention in the news media that we now have the extraordinary circumstance of many Americans asking for more news about their new president’s plans, and many more crying out for less news about their ex-president’s misdeeds.

There is little in the latest round of national polling to suggest that frustration with Mr. Clinton is leading to greater support for Mr. Bush. Yes, the president is getting tentative approval from the public and the benefit of the doubt even from many who did not support him, but that is the usual pattern for new presidents. After one month in office, Mr. Bush’s 53 percent approval rating matches Mr. Clinton’s and Ronald Reagan’s at the same point in their presidencies.

In last weekend’s nationwide Pew survey, about six in 10 Americans could recall something they had liked about Mr. Bush since he took office, while far fewer — only 40 percent — could cite something they disliked.

But this relatively charitable view is in line with what the public predicted last fall, during the days of deepest uncertainty about the presidential election. Pragmatists that they are, Americans said then that they would accept the winner, no matter who it was, once the flawed election was resolved.

And so they have — but not because Mr. Bush looks better than Mr. Clinton. In fact, Mr. Bush’s personal trust ratings are no higher in the latest Pew survey than Mr. Clinton’s were in January 1993 — and even then, inspiring personal trust was not a notable Clinton strength.

As for Mr. Clinton himself, not since the depths of the White House sex scandal has opinion about him been so negative. Just 17 percent of Americans polled by Newsweek last weekend said Bill Clinton has high moral and ethical standards — about as many as said so in August 1998 when he admitted to lying about not having had sex with Monica Lewinsky. And this poll was conducted before the disclosure that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s brother had taken large fees from two people pardoned by Mr. Clinton.

But what good is that to Mr. Bush? The attention to the pardons is only making it more difficult for him to achieve his Number One task — selling his tax cut. So far, he has barely moved public opinion on this signature issue from where it was a year ago. Now, as then, far more Americans favor reserving the budget surplus for Social Security and Medicare than using it for tax reductions. By a wide margin, Americans are dubious that the cuts will be fair, and most believe the rich will reap the lion’s share of benefits.

Americans may not like the news media’s all-Clinton, all-the-time obsession — 53 percent say there has been too much media coverage of the former president — but they can’t, or won’t, avoid it. Nearly as many people tuned in to the Clinton pardons controversy as followed news of the Bush tax plan last month.

Many people feel distracted. Remarkably, as many as 28 percent of respondents in the Pew survey said there is too little news coverage of Mr. Bush’s policy proposals since he took office. It is indeed exceptional for Americans to say they want more political news out of Washington.

But they are reflecting a very real trend. On Thursday evening, the three commercial network newscasts spent, all together, less than five minutes on Mr. Bush’s first presidential press conference, versus a combined 21 minutes on the Clinton stories. CBS was the most extreme, spending 10 minutes on the Clintons and not even doing a stand-alone segment on the Bush press conference.

Oddly enough, at an early, important time in his administration, the president of the United States finds himself in need of a bigger platform to get his message out. The question is: When will he get center stage? He needs it if he is to persuade the public that a big tax cut is the right thing to do.