WHAT DO PEOPLE THINK?
August 18, 1998
Immediately after President Clinton addressed the nation on the nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, pollsters surveyed the American people's reaction. Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, discusses the poll's findings and America's mood.
PHIL PONCE: There were several national public opinion surveys done right after the president spoke last night. Some of the findings now from Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Welcome, Andy.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
A RealAudio report from Dan Balz of The Washington Post.
August 17, 1998:
A special package of coverage on the president's testimony.
August 17, 1998:
What is the grand jury's role in the Starr investigation?
August 13, 1998:
What impact will Starr's investigation have on the presidency ?
July 30, 1998:
Should Clinton address the public about the Lewinsky matter?
July 28, 1998:
Ken Starr makes an immunity deal with Monica Lewinsky.
July 27, 1998:
Ken Starr subpoenas the president to testify in front of his grand jury
July 21, 1998:
A roundtable discussion on Chief Justice Rehnquist's decision not to interfere with the subpoenas of secret service agents.
July 15, 1998:
Can the Justice Dept. force secret service agents to testify?
July 1, 1998:
A report on the question of executive privilege and the Starr investigation.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Starr Investigation.
The Pew Research Center for People and the Press.
ANDREW KOHUT: Good to be here.
PHIL PONCE: We just heard from a group of people in Denver. How big was the audience across the country?
64 percent of the nation watched the president's speech.
ANDREW KOHUT: It was very big. It was 64 percent or about that in most of the national polls, three national polls last night, which puts it way up there. Only two other speeches have had that kind of audience for President Clinton: His first inaugural and then the State of the Union Address he made in the context of the allegations about this or in the midst of the allegations about this back in January. So this was a big audience for President Clinton's very brief speech.
PHIL PONCE: Andy, we just heard some diverse opinions from Denver. Was that group tapping into some general themes that polls picked up?
ANDREW KOHUT: I think so. I mean, what they were tapping into was pain. This is a painful story for people. It's painful for Clinton's supporters, who try to figure ways to come to terms with it. It enrages people who are Clinton opponents, who are enraged by it, and the people in the middle are confused by it. And if you look at the polls, those one-night polls, which can and will-probably will change-you see a very mixed message.
PHIL PONCE: One of the messages has to do with the president's truthfulness, specifically, for example, what his truthfulness may have been in front of the grand jury. What was found in the polls?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, if the objective was to get people to believe that he's telling the whole truth at this point, it didn't succeed, at least on first blush by a margin of 35 to 46 percent in the Gallup Poll, the public did not feel that the president was telling the whole truth to the grand jury. And in the ABC Poll, as many as 41 percent-only 41 percent said that they believed he was telling the truth in that four-minute speech when he said he didn't obstruct justice. So the president still has a credibility problem. In fact, the credibility problem may have been enhanced or reinforced by his admission of the fact that he'd lied to the American public back in January.
PHIL PONCE: Does this credibility problem perhaps tie in with what the polls showed, as far as what people think of him as a person?
What the people think of President Clinton, the person.
ANDREW KOHUT: And the public continues to think pretty poorly of him as a person. Only 40 percent in the Gallup Poll said they approved of Bill Clinton as a president-as a person, rather. 48 percent said they disapproved. This is a very, very big gap. There's a very big gap between this evaluation as an individual, as a man, as a person, and how they see him as a chief executive officer.
PHIL PONCE: And along those lines his job performance rating?
ANDREW KOHUT: His job performance rating, that's what makes this a mixed message, remained high-60-62 percent approved, 32 percent disapproved in the Gallup Poll, and the other two polls showed exactly the same thing. The bottom did not fall out, at least in the first few hours after that speech, for Bill Clinton. People continued to say they liked the job that he was doing as president, despite their reservations about him, despite the credibility problem that he may have reinforced and certainly laid bare.
PHIL PONCE: And you say in the first few hours. Is there a volatility, or is there a natural transience to these results? Does one look for like a delayed reaction of some sort?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think it's as simple as this. We all got the news last night, or at least most of us got the news last night, but the reactions and the judgments aren't going to be instant. People are going to be thinking about this; they're going to be talking about it. They're going to look at the coverage; they're going to consider it; and their perspective on it may well change. And it very often does change in situations like this-not that we've ever been in a situation like this-but I mean when there's really big news and surprising, if not shocking, news.
PHIL PONCE: And sticking with the short term, what were the short-term indications as far as how people feel about impeachment, for example?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, we don't see any real difference. I mean, the public continues to say by a margin of 25 to 69 percent that the president should not be impeached. Other questions show the same thing. They want that the president should not resign-they don't want-the public said-at least last night-that the Clinton presidency shouldn't end as a consequence of this.
PHIL PONCE: And during the life of a Clinton presidency, should the matter be dropped? What are people saying?
ANDREW KOHUT: And they say, as they've said all along, we don't-we'd like to see it end with an apology. We'd like to see it end, period. The public is very uncomfortable with this, and I think one of the real questions is, how the public will react to the continuation of this because obviously the investigation will go on; the controversy will go on.
PHIL PONCE: But how about future questions, what are the kinds of things that pollsters are going to be looking at in the next few weeks, in the next couple of months?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think the questions are whether the acceptance that the public has-has given to-mea culpa speech and to the president, in terms of his approval, will continue, or whether the public will become angry as a consequence of feeling that this confession should have occurred sooner, or perhaps he didn't really apologize enough. There will be a question about whether acceptance-as the public said they would be accepting of an apology-will last and not-and not revert into anger. And I think the other big question is whether his credibility question will in the end lead to either the end or reduction in the president's approval ratings in general political support. So far, we've had two very disparate views of Clinton-Clinton as a man, Clinton as a trust-as a president you can trust-and Clinton as a chief executive officer who's doing a good job. Will that continue under this new situation, where the president has said he's lied and the public may feel abused and taken through a situation that was pretty unpleasant? Of course, the other up-side of this-potential up-side or positive thing would be is if there's a backlash in support of the president, as there were-as there was in January, if this goes on and the public has said, please, let's make this the end of it, if it continues, it continues, will people rally to a beleaguered president? Who knows? But I think only time will tell, and it will take some time for people to sort this out in their own way.
PHIL PONCE: Andy Kohut, thanks very much for being here.
ANDREW KOHUT: You're welcome.