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Clinton's Job Approval Legacy

Senior Scientist

PRINCETON, NJ -- Bill Clinton is probably the most "polled" president in history. For one thing, he has served a full eight years in office, and there have been only two other presidents since FDR who served two full terms (Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan). In addition, of course, there simply weren't as many polls, and the polls that did exist weren't conducted as frequently, in past years. All of this means that random samples of Americans have probably been asked more questions about Clinton than about any other man or woman in the history of public opinion polling.

One of the most important of these questions has been Gallup's classic "job approval" measure, asked about Clinton a grand total of 226 times between January 1993 and December 2000.

The job approval measure itself was developed by Gallup in the 1930s, and was explicitly designed to provide a measure that separated the "man" from the job. Alec Gallup, co-chair of Gallup, indicates that the company experimented with several ways of doing this until it decided on the current wording: "Do you approve or disapprove of the way {Name} is handling his job as president?"

The measure is the most frequently asked question Gallup has used over the years, and since it has been asked relentlessly, it provides a fascinating barometer of American spirits. Like the quarterback in football, the U.S. president probably gets too much credit when things go right, and too much blame when they go wrong. But for exactly that reason, presidential job approval is probably one of our best measures of the overall spirits of the country.

At the end of his eight years in office, Clinton will have an average presidential approval rating of about 55%. That puts him even with Lyndon Johnson's overall average, but behind three other presidents: John F. Kennedy, whose average approval rating was 70%; Dwight Eisenhower, who averaged 65%; and George H. W. Bush, who came in with an average of 61%.

Overall, there were several low points for presidential approval since the end of World War II:

  • The final years of Harry Truman's administration, with a bad economy and the country mired in the war in Korea. Truman bottomed out with a job approval rating of 22% in February 1952 -- the lowest in Gallup history.
  • The final months of LBJ's administration, with the country going into a tailspin because of the war in Vietnam. Johnson's lowest job approval rating was 35%, in August 1968.
  • The final months of the Nixon administration, with Watergate taking its toll, ultimately forcing the former vice president to resign. Gallup's final job approval measure of Nixon, in August 1974, showed him with just a 24% approval rating -- the second lowest in history behind Truman's.
  • The final years of the Carter administration, as the country was hit with inflation, gas shortages and the specter of the hostages in Iran, sent Carter's ratings into the trash bin. Carter's lowest rating was 29%, in June and October 1979.
  • The final year of the first Bush administration, in which the elder Bush's job approval plummeted, primarily because of the economy, reaching a low point of 29% in July 1992.

One interesting point is how quickly the fortunes of a president can change. Truman and Bush received the highest scores on record -- Truman at the close of the war in Europe, just after he took office when FDR died in the spring of 1945 (87%), and Bush near the conclusion of the Gulf War (89% in February 1991). Later in their presidencies, both men's ratings dropped dramatically.

LBJ, as well, had high job approval ratings during the first year or two after he took over from Kennedy, and then his ratings fell sharply and precipitously, resulting in his decision not to pursue re-election in 1968.

The public's estimation of Bill Clinton has also taken a roller coaster ride over the eight years of his administration. His lowest job approval was 37%, and his highest was 73%, a spread of 36 percentage points. The casual observer might assume that Clinton's low point came during his impeachment crisis. But totally to the contrary, Clinton's low point came just after he was inaugurated, in the summer of 1993 and his high point came smack in the middle of impeachment, in December 1998.

Clinton, in fact, is finishing his term on a relatively high note. The latest job approval rating we have for him is 66% (December 15-17, 2000) and that is higher than any other president has had in December of his last year in office since FDR (Kennedy and Nixon, of course, did not have a December of an official final year, since both left office abruptly). The next highest rating in December of a president's last year in office was obtained by Ronald Reagan, who climbed back to 63% by December 1988, and Eisenhower, who had a rating of 59% in December 1960.

Despite the fact that impeachment was accompanied by a rising job approval rating, the sex and perjury crisis did take its toll on Clinton's image. Clinton's ratings from the public in terms of his being honest and trustworthy dropped significantly, and his ratings "as a person" also fell well below the 50% mark. Indeed, one of the most the fascinating aspects of the public's perception of Bill Clinton is the divergence of its ratings of him in terms of the economy and its ratings in terms of his being honest and trustworthy. The former ratings began to go up after his re-election in 1996, while the latter began to fall in 1998, as the Monica Lewinsky situation became public. What happened to his job approval during this same period of time? It went up, tracking Clinton's economy ratings rather than his honesty ratings, clearly indicating that the public considered the job he was doing as steward of the economy to be more important than his honesty and trustworthiness.

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