TOPICS > Politics

Mood of a Nation

January 17, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In just three days William Jefferson Clinton will take the oath of office for his second presidential term. As he does, according to the latest poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Americans feel relatively good about their own lives and are optimistic about the future; however, they are less positive about the state of the country than they have been in 15 years. We get more on this now from Andrew Kohut, director of the Center for the People and the Press. Andy Kohut, what explains people’s optimism about their own lives and their pessimism about the country?

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Research Center: Well, these are good economic times. People think that economic conditions are better, and they’re optimistic in the short run that they can control the things that are important to them–family, health jobs. I want to emphasize the short run. But when they look at the country, they’re very pessimistic, much more pessimistic than they’ve been in 20 years. The last time we got this much pessimism was right after Watergate. And, you know, obviously the national conditions are nothing like Watergate. Things are very different in the way people look at the country these days.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What are some of the things that make the pessimistic?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, they’re concerned about the national character concerns. It’s a cluster of things–crime, drugs, morality, the kinds of things we’ve been hearing about today, ethics in Washington, and ethics in public office. And these problems seem so much more intractable and unable to–to solve than then old days when progress for the country was judged on how we were doing in our rivalry with the Soviet Union. Now, the problems deal with moral issues, social issues, economic issues, and to a large extent progress is much more in the eye of the beholder than it was 20 years ago. If Russia invaded Afghanistan, that was bad news. If we had a new disarmament treaty in the offing, that was good news. But now progress is difficult to judge in dealing with these more amorphous problems, difficult problems.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What did your poll show about these things shake out? I know we have a little graph that shows some of them, starting with international terrorism, that was high on the list, wasn’t it?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, when we ask people about threats to the country, people are concerned, very concerned about international terrorism, but you know what the number two concern is and will rank justice as high as international terrorism is concern about the threat of political special interest groups, and that goes to this notion that, you know, political reform seems to–seems like such a serious problem, yet, we seem to be so unable to make progress on it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: 53 percent of the people answered that this was a concern of theirs.

ANDREW KOHUT: That’s right.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Also, illegal immigration ranked pretty high.

ANDREW KOHUT: That’s right.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And racial conflict.

ANDREW KOHUT: And racial conflict. There’s no–there are no shortage of problems that people see on the horizon for the country. What they don’t see is clear evidence of solutions. And, in fact, in the areas where there has been progress, budget reduction, crime, when we asked people, are we gaining on it, or losing round, they–a large majority say we’re losing ground even on these problems where there is some real evidence of progress.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now is this across the political spectrum, or does it break down along party lines?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, that’s one of the other things that have changed over the past twenty or thirty years ago. Twenty or thirty years ago Republicans, Democrats, and independents pretty much judged the state of the country similarly. I mean, there were differences, but now there’s sharply different partisan views. 53 percent of Democrats are optimistic about the next five years; 30 percent of Republicans are optimistic; and 37 percent of independents. Those are very partisan numbers compared to what they were let’s say in 1972 or even 1988.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Does anything explain that in your polling?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think it goes back to the fact that it’s harder to judge progress on national problems. And Republicans say we haven’t made deficit reduction, and the Democrats say we have, and the public is kind of confused.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do they feel about the President?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, the President is getting pretty good ratings as he starts a second term, which is typical. About six in ten are saying that they approve of the President. This is a Republican, of which only 24 percent only voted for him. But generally in the spirit of starting over again, the American public has a better view of the President as he starts his second term. This is the case for Reagan, Nixon, Eisenhower, all of our recent second term Presidents.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And how are the scandals–Margaret referred to them earlier in her conversation with Leon Panetta–how are they resonating in the polls?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, the public’s not paying a lot of attention to the ins and outs of the Indonesian thing or Gingrich’s ethics or Paula Jones. But when we say are these serious problems, do they deserve congressional action, we find 80 percent saying so. And they’re having a much more serious effect personally on Newt Gingrich than they are on Bill Clinton. Newt Gingrich’s favorability rating is 26 percent, Bill Clinton’s 66 percent. Gingrich came in with an image of–as an ideologue–and I think now, added to that, is the image of a rule bender and to a certain extent as a hypocrite.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And government, in general, I mean, do people have a better view of it than they have in the past, that it can serve them?

ANDREW KOHUT: They have a very mixed view of it. 70 percent think that government will play a role in the country solving its problems, but 40 percent identify government as one of the major threats to the country.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And in one word, their biggest priority.

ANDREW KOHUT: The biggest priority right now is fix Social Security and improve education.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Andy Kohut, thank you.