WASHINGTON -- President Clinton today enjoys his highest level of popularity, a belated honeymoon that puts him in rarefied historical company and reflects a purring economy, savvy political positioning and a deft personal touch.
Six months into his second term, Clinton's approval rating stands as high as 64 percent in some polls, an unexpected turn of events for a man who concedes that he can be a polarizing figure and who did not garner even 50 percent of the popular vote either time he ran for president.
Pollsters, party professionals and political scientists provide varying reasons for Clinton's surge in approval. One, the continuing strong performance of the economy, is self-evident and time-tested. Others, such as his shift toward the political center and a strangely apathetic national attitude about government, are subtler and harder to quantify.
Ultimately, there is also Clinton's larger-than-life personality, which lends itself to fierce personal attacks, but also to a grudging acceptance -- even by Clinton's enemies -- that he has an uncommon ability to connect on a human level with people across a wide and diverse nation.
"You can sum it up in one word: empathy," says Frank Luntz, a leading Republican pollster. "He feels their pain. He may have caused it, but he feels it. Not only that, but he understands it, and he can address it."
Because Luntz is the consultant who had field-tested the 1994 Republican "Contract with America," frustrated congressional Republicans have turned to him to explain why Clinton often gets credit for championing their ideas.
"Clinton speaks a language that is soothing and comforting," Luntz said. "He's instinctive. You can't be taught what he knows. If he's in a union hall, he's a card-carrying member of labor. If he's talking to CEOs, he's one of them. An audience of women? He's had a sex-change operation. Throwing out the first ball to start the baseball season? He's the pitcher."
Clinton's popularity has made it easier for him to negotiate with the Republicans who control Congress. The fruits of that cooperation were on display in sweeping tax cuts approved by Congress and the president this month, and by their bipartisan plan to balance the federal budget for the first time in 30 years.
Clinton aides report that the president's spirits have never seemed higher.
Yesterday, he embarked on a three-week holiday on Martha's Vineyard, the longest vacation of his adult life.
On his first trip there in 1993, Clinton spent time with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, apparently hoping some of John F. Kennedy's mystique would rub off on him. Perhaps it did. His approval ratings are not Kennedyesque -- JFK rarely fell below 60 percent and once hit 79 percent -- but with his current approval rating, Clinton is in heady company.
A recent CBS News poll had Clinton with 61 percent. This puts him 1 point behind Ronald Reagan and 2 points behind Dwight D. Eisenhower at the same stage in their presidencies -- just after they'd been re-elected with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
A rocky start
Traditionally, Americans rally behind their president when he first takes office. But Clinton immediately became mired in a gays-in-the-military furor and raised taxes instead of lowering them as he had promised to do.
"Clinton's approval level at the traditional 100-day marker was lower than that of eight of his nine immediate predecessors," Fred I. Greenstein, a Princeton presidential scholar, noted. "His unpopularity added to his difficulty in advancing his initiatives."
Moreover, Americans almost seemed to be feeling a kind of buyer's remorse.
In a May 1993 poll that replayed the 1992 presidential race, Clinton could only tie Ross Perot, with each garnering 35 percent while George Bush drew 25 percent.
Five years later, Clinton is sitting pretty, for reasons that say as much about the times we live in as about the man in the Oval Office.
When Clinton took office, the nation's unemployment rate was 7.1 percent; today it is 4.8 percent. The federal deficit was $290 billion; this year it is projected to be $37 billion. On Wall Street, the Dow Jones averaged 3,241 the day Clinton was inaugurated in 1993. Today, it hovers near 8,000. There were 14.1 million Americans on welfare then; now there are 10.7 million.
These gains occurred without substantial new government spending and without inflation.
"Everything is clicking right," said Paul W. Boltz, an economist with T. Rowe Price in Baltimore. "It's just a remarkable time."
Americans are not naive enough to give Clinton credit for all this, but it does put them in a less restive frame of mind.
"Why be angry at Washington when you don't need anything from Washington?" says Mandy Grunwald, a consultant who worked for Clinton in 1992.
"The voters have a very sophisticated view of him. They know about his personal foibles; they know about campaign finance. . . . But they balance that against the performance of the economy and conclude he's doing what he's supposed to be doing."
Clinton has always had a gift for working a crowd, especially in one-on-one encounters.
Shaking hands in Arlington, Va., on a spring day in 1995, for example, Clinton met a homemaker who pointed to her two toddlers and said, almost apologetically, that she was really a lawyer -- or at least had been.
The president continued on, then abruptly went back to the woman. "Ma'am, you have the most important job in the world," he said pointing to her boys. "Even more important than mine."
The woman beamed. Hardened Secret Service agents shook their heads and smiled in awe.
The challenge for Clinton has been to translate that empathy to a bigger stage. He had some learning to do first. Donning sunglasses and playing the sax on Arsenio Hall's talk show was fine for a candidate. But once in office, going on MTV and discussing his underwear came across as unpresidential.
The turning point, according to several political scientists, came April 19, 1995, when a terrorist's bomb destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 and wounding hundreds more.
"He was forceful, angry, sorrowful and yet optimistic all at the same time," says Bruce C. Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas. "He reassured the nation in a Reaganesque way. And after that, he just seemed to quit doing and saying things that were unpresidential."
The political center
Devastated by the 1994 elections that gave Republicans control of Congress, Clinton turned to his longtime adviser Dick Morris.
Morris' advice: Don't worry about having lost Congress. In fact, use the Democrats there as a foil. Take the middle ground between House Speaker Newt Gingrich's would-be revolution and the old-style liberal Democrats -- that's where the public is.
And so, in 1995 and 1996, Clinton came out in favor of school uniforms, expanding the death penalty, a V-chip to screen out violent Hollywood programming, relaxed rules for prayer in school, tax cuts for children, tax cuts for college tuition.
Most were Republican ideas, but Clinton mixed in a dose of liberal ones as well, including gun control, midnight basketball leagues and combating smoking.
"Clinton became the Third Way, an ideology all his own," says Jim Duffy, a Democratic consultant. "The best of both parties."
Gingrich and the Republicans played into his hands, passing two budget bills that Clinton -- and the public -- dismissed as extreme.
The public even blamed the GOP for two ensuing government shutdowns.
"That took care of another problem -- that he supposedly didn't stand for anything," Buchanan said. "What Gingrich didn't seem to understand was how to communicate. All his talk of revolution frightened people -- and played into Clinton's subsequent 'Mediscare' campaign."
Clinton did face ridicule for advocating such small-bore issues as teen curfews.
But while these matters were mainly symbolic, such issues as crime prevention and college tax credits hit home.
"The declining crime rates make people feel more secure," says Terry Eastland, a former Reagan-era Justice Department official.
"When people feel less threatened and more secure, they are less likely to be unhappy with the president."
In the process, Clinton also came across as a president who cares about average Americans and their everyday problems.
"In 1996, when you asked people how they are going to pay for college, they didn't have a clue," Duffy said. "Well, Clinton offered them a solution. He was the man with the plan."
The national mood
"Politics no longer seems relevant to people," says Michelle Woodward of Arlington, Va. "Clinton is the leader of an irrelevant body, more of a celebrity in chief."
Politics has always been relevant to Woodward. She's a Republican who worked on Bob Dole's campaigns. Today, she is an Internet marketing consultant, working mostly out of her home.
But her attitude is not unique.
The same polls that show Clinton's popularity also register apathy about the broad tax cut just signed by the president.
Political scientists say that it's common in times of peace and prosperity for Americans to seem content.
But in the current mood, even scandals -- and Clinton has had his share -- don't seem to ignite the public wrath.
"It would take a national mass psychologist to figure it out, but it seems that the public has no expectations of government," says George Christian, a former press secretary to Lyndon B. Johnson.
"There's no Clinton Revolution like there was a Reagan Revolution. But the people don't want a revolution.
"They're not sure they even want a president."
Pub Date: 8/18/97