Analyzing President Clinton
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JIM LEHRER: Now a 101st assessment of the assessments of the first 100 days of the Clinton administration. It comes from two pollsters, Republican Linda Divall and Democrat Peter Hart; Jodie Allen, the editor of Outlook, the Washington Post Sunday opinion and analysis section; and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.
Peter Hart, how do you read the public’s readings of what’s been going on in Washington these last 100 days?
PETER HART: Well, the public’s readings are basically positive. If you look to the polls that have all come out this week, about 60 percent of the American public’s approving of the job that Bill Clinton’s doing. That’s a pretty good start, and it compares pretty well with, favorably with other presidents, and essentially coming out of a three-way race, he’s doing well.
And the one other thing we need to remember is nobody else said in this first hundred days they were going to raise taxes, and in spite of that, there are 60 percent of the public saying, look, I approve, I think he’s doing the right thing, I think there’s a sense of optimism, a sense of hope. All of that’s good news to Bill Clinton.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see that same good news in the polls, Linda?
LINDA DIVALL: Well, not exactly. The way that I look at it is first of all to pick another president who was also elected with just 43 percent of the vote in a three-way contest, and that would be Richard Nixon in 1968. And at a comparable point in time he had a job approval rating of 61 to 14 percent disapproval. While Peter is correct that most of the surveys show the approval rating anywhere from 55 to 59 percent. The other interesting thing is that the disapproval rating for Bill Clinton in every survey that’s been released this week is in a range of 31 to 39 percent. In other words, his disapproval rating is three times as Richard Nixon’s in the first one hundred-day period.
JIM LEHRER: How do you explain that?
LINDA DIVALL: I think a lot of it is frankly intense media focus during the campaign and the first 100 days, and a third party candidate who is still very much a factor, even though he was solidly defeated.
JIM LEHRER: You mean Ross Perot?
LINDA DIVALL: Ross Perot is very much a factor in this race, focusing attention on Bill Clinton’s plan. He is an irritant there who’s trying to make certain that his agenda that he campaigned on is paid attention to. The other thing that I think is happening in the first 100 days is that President Clinton has lost his focus somewhat.
Here’s a candidate who said he would focus like a laser on the economy. Here’s a candidate who said, I intend to have a legislative program ready on the desk for Congress the day after I’m inaugurated, I intend to have an explosive 100-day action program. Because of Congress, because of all the problems that face the president, he has not been able to focus like a laser on the economy. And I think that is one of the disappointments that the American public has because he raised expectations, himself, so high early on in his presidency.
JIM LEHRER: He set his own measuring stick, would you agree with that, Peter, and then didn’t match it?
PETER HART: Well, I think there was a great deal of exuberance by the president in terms of what he’d be able to accomplish immediately, and, no, he couldn’t match it all. But the one thing he did is he’s gone out and he’s attacked the right problems, and I think in the right way. He’s gone after the problem of the deficit. Obviously, he’s gotten a budget resolution. That’s a big deal.
The second thing he’s done is he’s dealt with unemployment and he’s dealt with some sort of sense of economic growth. Third, they’re moving on health care. Those are the things that are going to count. Has he been able to achieve as much as he wanted to in the first hundred days? No. But I think the direction is right, and I think the look is right.
JIM LEHRER: What about — speaking of the overall look — not just the president but the government of the United States, meaning the president plus the Congress, the conventional wisdom on this program and every other program was that the people wanted that change. Do they perceive that? Do you have any polls that show how they see what’s going on here in a general way?
PETER HART: Well, I think it’s a great question because what we find is there was that sense I want to break the gridlock, I want a sense of optimism. And they look at Sen. Domenici as they did tonight and they start to see the sense of everybody digging in and getting their position. That’s not what the voters want. They want change, and we noted that in our first poll right after the inauguration that by a margin of about three to one they said things are going to be different. In our latest NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, they start to say, no, things are going to start to be the same. And that’s not what voters want. They want change.
JIM LEHRER: Linda, how do you read this idea of what we have seen here? Is it more of the same, or has there been anything different?
LINDA DIVALL: Well, first of all, we are still in the first 100 days, and I think people definitely want to give President Clinton the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, their opinions of Congress are still highly disapproving. Our recent survey that we just came out of the field with showed 37 percent of the public approving of the job Congress is doing, 54 percent disapproving, with about 34 percent strongly disapproving. There is a sense –
JIM LEHRER: It’s just Congress generally? It’s not broken down to Republicans, Democrats, it’s just Congress?
LINDA DIVALL: This specifically is the House of Representatives.
JIM LEHRER: House of Representatives.
PETER HART: Which is probably pretty good news for the House of Representatives.
LINDA DIVALL: Well, that’s a drop of about 20 points from where it was last fall. But the point that I’m trying to make is that Congress also campaigned on a theme of change and reform and have done anything but that, and so that is a problem that President Clinton faces in terms of trying to be an agent of change and working with the Congress. He doesn’t necessarily want to accommodate that, and we see that in terms of no campaign finance reform being passed. Some of the items that the president campaigned under to try to present change, his own people in Congress are blocking.
JIM LEHRER: Kathleen Jamieson, from your perspective as somebody who observes what the media has been saying, the pundits and others, the straight press and the unstraight press, would you, is there a decided difference between what the press has been saying and what the polls show the public thinks about the first 100 days, not only of President Clinton but of government generally and the Congress as well?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The interesting thing about conventionalizing a hundred days’ coverage is that it invites us to set up a short-term measure that makes an assessment that may, in fact, not reflect the ultimate accomplishments of this president, and so I think the important thing to do is to keep this in perspective.
One could say at a hundred days do we ask how the polls compare to past presidents, in which case Bill Clinton isn’t doing all that well, or we could say: In the first hundred days, how much has he tried to accomplish and how much of that has he succeeded at? Historically, in the first 100 days, presidents other than FDR didn’t accomplish very much. In the first hundred days Clinton has changed abortion rights access; he’s changed the thrust of the country on the environment; family leave has been pushed through; and we now have a major dialogue on health care reform.
If one had said, how many things that are comparable to that have been accomplished in the first hundred days of past presidents, which is one way the coverage could have gone, you’d say Clinton has done remarkably. Instead, the hundred days’ coverage is now conventionalizing in a different direction, focusing on the economy and on taxes, the place that the pollsters tell us he is weakest. That’s got to hurt Bill Clinton.
JIM LEHRER: And you don’t think that’s right?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think that the reason 43 percent voted for him and 55 to 60 percent say they approve of his job performance is that abortion rights access, changes on the environment, family leave, and a serious discussion of health care look like change to a lot of people who recognize that in a hundred days you can’t turn around the economy, and you can’t provide health care access for 35 million Americans.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Jodie Allen, then what Kathleen Jamieson is suggesting is that the people who, who pundit for, and analyze for a living have a very narrow focus when it comes to analyzing this presidency after 100 days. Do you agree with that? It’s been too negative, in other words? That’s what you’re saying, right?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I’m saying it’s inappropriate to make the negative judgment after a hundred days.
JIM LEHRER: Period?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Period, of anyone.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
JODIE ALLEN: Well, I don’t think that the press does focus all that narrowly. I think the press looks at exactly the same things that we’ve been talking about here, and the notion that they’re just a small group of inside-the-beltway people who run around to cocktail parties and ask each other how’s he doing, I don’t think that that’s at all representative of what goes on. You look at exactly the same things. So do all the other people here tonight look at – – we look at the polls; we look at doing focus group analysis; we just had the — we, the Washington Post, published a very good focus group analysis this weekend. We hear things that all seem to come together to say: Gee, he’s not doing as well as the public had hoped.
Now, of course, there was a burst of euphoria. There were these expectations. The administration helped set up those expectations, even to the extent of pointing out a rather silly, day-by-day analysis of President Clinton and Al Gore’s accomplishments which actually served to sort of minimize them rather than aggrandize them. I think that it would be hard to come to any other conclusion than, not surprisingly but certainly a pretty obvious one, that they’re not doing as well in many dimensions as people had hoped and been led to believe.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The problem with asking people at 100 days, what did you hope, and has the person met expectations, when what is currently on the table is economic reform and tax increases is that it invites the public to assess based on that criterion primarily, and in that context, the fact that 55 to 59 percent still say they approve of this I think is simply remarkable.
What’s interesting is that the coverage, itself, is not consistent with the polling results because the coverage is using such words as “faltering,” or “increasingly desperate,” “floundering.” I don’t think you can flounder this quickly. Six months from now if he doesn’t have economic reform moving through, the health care package hasn’t gone through, then those verbs might be warranted. The headlines, in other words, aren’t running consistently with the polling numbers.
JODIE ALLEN: I don’t, in the first place, I don’t think that the coverage has been that dramatic in terms of floundering or whatever. In fact, I haven’t heard a single commentator who hasn’t said, well, there’s a certain drift here, who hasn’t immediately said, of course, a hundred days, Linda said it just earlier, is awfully short time to judge a presidency, and I don’t think this would be being done if the Clinton people hadn’t invited it, in which case it’s inevitable that we will look at how they’re doing. But you do need to look behind that approval rating. There are things that need to be worried about.
For example, one of the things Clinton had done was — amazingly for a Democrat in recent history — was to have convinced people, a majority of people, that Democrats were better able to handle the economy and taxes. And yet, this week some very striking poll numbers have come out showing that he has completely lost that advantage. And people are once again saying, you know, that Republicans are better able to handle the tax issue. So while people do seem ready for sacrifice and certainly Clinton gets high marks with coming up with the proposed tax increase, they also seem to be saying, yeah, we’ll pay taxes but not for the program that he’s pushing. And that has to be worrisome to him because he needs to have a broader base.
JIM LEHRER: Kathleen Jamieson, another criticism that I have heard from people about the press coverage, not so much of the Clinton 100 days but it relates to that as well, is that the press is obsessed now more with the politics of the 100 days or the 50 days, rather than the substance. Of course, that’s one we hear a lot, and we’ve always heard that, and it’s probably always true to varying degrees, depending on the various news organizations, do you notice any more of that now than usual?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes. That’s part of the reason for saying that historically we were more likely at the end of a hundred days to say what has he accomplished by ways of specific programs, and then, are they going to work are not? We were still within a policy debate. We’ve now moved toward governance that uses the campaign model. It focuses on polls, it focuses on strategy, and in a wonderful moment, I think it was in the Washington Post, someone pointed out, as they do in campaign coverage, that Clinton was wearing brown shoes with his dark suit, and that mismatch was symptomatic of the faltering state of the Clinton presidency as the campaign moved and he picked a symbolic movement to underscore the comment that you’re making about the judgment about the campaign.
I think what we need to do is refocus on the nature of the problems and whether Clinton has a viable solution or whether the Republican alternative is a viable solution.
JIM LEHRER: How do you get around that problem, Jodie Allen, of, how do you keep people in our business from not, from not drawing all political or all governmental conflicts in, in kind of show biz or sports terms, Dole won, Clinton lost, and that is the story, not so much what the substance was, and that gets lost in the process, can you change that?
JODIE ALLEN: Well, of course, this is the whole problem that newspapers face. We want you to read about the details of how the tax program is going and, yet, we find our readers prefer to look at it, you know, Dole: one, Clinton: zero, and we try to entice them. If you do read the stories and not just the headlines or the style page about the shoes, you will find very serious discussion and great analysis of how is this program selling. But we look at the polls for the very reason that we’re criticized for looking too narrowly at ourselves and at the Hill for being out of touch with America. We do want to know what people are thinking and saying.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Now, notice what Jodie just said. Her substantive focus is on how the program sells. That’s not what a substantive focus should look like. It should look like this is the nature of the problem; these are the alternative solutions; this is how they have or have not worked in the past; and this is ultimately whether or not they’re going to affect American lives in a positive or negative way.