GALLUP NEWS SERVICE
Despite the fact that he is only the second President in U.S. history to be impeached by the House of Representatives, President Bill Clinton received a 73% job approval rating from the American public this past weekend, the highest rating of his administration, and one of the higher job approval ratings given any president since the mid-1960s.
The 73% rating, based on a Gallup poll conducted December 19-20, came at the end of one of the most eventful weeks in recent American history. Not only did the House convene to debate and then pass two of four articles of impeachment against the President, but the week also saw an intensive four-day U.S. and British air attack against Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein.
Both of these two events most probably had an impact on the spike in Clinton's job evaluation. Even though Clinton's job approval ratings have been high all year, the weekend's 73% rating marked a 10 percentage point increase from a survey conducted Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, which partially overlapped the beginning of the Iraq attack, and a 9% increase from a poll conducted the previous weekend. The 73% figure is also about 7-8 percentage points higher than the ratings Clinton received in a number of polls taken throughout most of October and November.
Americans Back "Desert Fox"
It is clear that last week's air strikes against Iraq were overwhelmingly popular with the American public: 78% of Americans approved and only 18% disapproved. Additionally, the attacks appeared to have been viewed as legitimate by most Americans. The criticism that they were ordered by Clinton in part to divert attention away from the impeachment proceedings was endorsed by only 25% of the public. Most thought that they were "in the best interests of the country."
Dramatic, sharply focused events which involve Americans placed in harms way on foreign soil are part of a class of occurrences known as rally events, so named because they typically cause the American public to "rally around the flag" and usually result in increased job approval ratings for the sitting president. In recent years, such events have included Desert Storm and the Invasion of Panama in the Bush administration and air strikes against Libya and the invasion of Grenada in the Reagan administration. Given these past experiences, it might be expected that the Iraq strikes would boost the President's job approval numbers.
At the same time, the House vote on Saturday was an historic event of great significance and one that dominated television and news coverage. As has generally been the case for several months, public opinion about this impeachment action, although not as sharply defined as the reaction to the Iraq attacks, is strongly negative, with disapproval of the House vote running ahead of approval by a 63% to 35% margin. Other measures included in Gallup's most recent poll underscore this negative reaction. There has been a significant drop in favorable opinions of the Republican Party -- at the same time that 54% of Americans agree that the Republicans in Congress have abused their Constitutional authority.
This negative reaction to the congressional emphasis on impeachment, combined with the positive reaction to the Iraq strikes, may have resulted this past weekend in a renewed focus by the public on what they perceive Clinton to be doing right. A parallel phenomenon occurred last January, as the Lewinsky crisis first broke, when a successful State of the Union address by Clinton resulted in an increase rather than a decrease in his job approval by the American public.
Historical Perspective on Clinton's Job Approval
Bill Clinton's job approval rating has been at or above the 60% level in 38 separate Gallup surveys conducted since late January. Clinton's previous high rating was 69%, registered in late January and early February after his successful State of the Union address. Since October he has averaged a 66% job approval number. This can be contrasted with the much lower ratings Clinton received in the earlier years of his administration: 49% in 1993, 45% in 1994, and 47% in 1995. Even in 1996, a year in which Clinton was reelected to his second term; his average job approval rating was 56%, and averaged only 58% last year.
How does Clinton's most recent quarterly average of 66% stand up historically? With the exception of George Bush, it is the highest quarterly rating enjoyed by any president since Lyndon Johnson in 1965 - higher than any average quarter for Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, or Richard Nixon.
Bush was an exception to the recent trend of lower presidential approval ratings, fueled in large part by successful U.S. intervention on foreign shores during the first years of his administration. Bush's job approval rating was 66% in 1989, the first year of his administration, edged up to 67% in 1990, and averaged 69.5% in 1991, the year which saw Bush receive the highest single job approval rating in Gallup history, 89%, just after the country's victory in the Gulf War.
This weekend's 73% job approval rating for Clinton, the best in the six years of his administration, is also high compared with other recent Presidents. George Bush, as noted, exceeded that figure in a number of polls conducted after the Gulf War and after the invasion of Panama in late 1989 and early 1990, but Ronald Reagan never achieved the 70% level in the eight years of his administration. Jimmy Carter had a rating of 75% in March of his first year in office (the "honeymoon" period), but did not return to those heights during the remainder of his term in office. Gerald Ford received a 71% job approval immediately after taking office, but his numbers quickly fell after his presidential pardon of Richard Nixon, who himself never reached the 70% level, even in his relatively popular first term from 1969 to 1973. (Before Nixon, however, 70%+ ratings were more common, occurring numerous times in the administrations of LBJ, Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower.)
Bill Clinton ends 1998 with the looming prospect of a trial in the U.S. Senate that could possibly result in his removal from office, but at the same time with an exceptionally high vote of confidence from the American public.
It may not be surprising that Americans clearly favor a quick resolution to the impeachment process next year -- without a Senate trial or a Clinton resignation. In response to a three-part choice, only 31% of those polled this past weekend say that the Senate should proceed with the trial. The rest either wants a vote of Censure without a trial (36%) or the matter dropped altogether (32%). Only 30% want Clinton to resign. And, if there is a Senate trial, only 29% of Americans say that the Senate should vote to convict Clinton and remove him from office.
The results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 852 adults, 18 years and older, conducted December 19-20, 1998. For results based on samples of this size, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects could be as much as plus or minus 4 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.