In 7th year, Americans get a bit tired of a president; Campaign: Vice President Al Gore's bid for the White House is having to cope with low public approval brought on by "Clinton fatigue."


WASHINGTON -- Disillusioned by scandal, an uncertain electorate was having second thoughts about the performance of its president as his eight years in office drew to a close. His hand-picked successor, a two-term vice president, was lagging in the polls against a governor who portrayed himself as a Washington outsider with fresh ideas.

President Clinton? Vice President Al Gore? Texas Gov. George W. Bush?

No. The year was 1988, not 1999, and the president was Ronald Reagan, who after seven years in office saw his approval rating flagging in the wake of the Iran-contra investigations. His vice president, George Bush, trailed the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, by 15 points in polls.

In his seventh year in office, Clinton and his preferred successor, Gore, are facing a similarly balky public, according to polls. This time, however, there's a name for it: "Clinton fatigue."

Political historians say this kind of public fatigue is not new. In the history of American presidencies, it follows what might have been called Reagan fatigue, Eisenhower fatigue, even Roosevelt, as in FDR, fatigue.

"It is conventional wisdom, and the conventional wisdom is not wrong, that the end of a president's term does lead to public fatigue, especially when the president serves two terms," said Stanley Milkis, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia and author of "The American Presidency: Origins and Development."

"This has been true back to the 19th century," Milkis said.

The idea that the nation is simply tired of Bill Clinton and his scandal-troubled administration is being mentioned as a significant factor in Gore's poor showing in the polls against Bush, the presumptive Republican nominee, and recent gains in key states by former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, Gore's sole opponent for the Democratic nomination.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll showed 53 percent of Americans are "just plain tired" of Clinton. In that same poll, 54 percent said they do not have more confidence in Gore by virtue of his service as vice president for seven years.

A poll by the Gallup Organization provided more bad news for Gore. It found Bush leading Gore by 55 to 37 percent. That same poll gave Gore a 54 percent favorable rating compared to 71 percent for Bush. In key primary states such as New Hampshire and New York, Bradley has pulled even with the once heavily favored Gore.

Gore agreed there have been downturns in the popularity of presidents, including Clinton, in the final years of their terms. But he said he expects those feelings to give way to renewed popularity in Clinton's final year in office.

"History shows that there's a well-established pattern that, regardless of the individual, regardless of the party, whenever our country has a two-term president, there's a feeling in the seventh year that has been described by different labels," he told the Associated Press in an interview last month.

"In the eighth year," he said, "there's a renewed burst of energy and positive feeling about what's been done and the reasons why a president has had two terms."

Last week, Gore denied that he was moving his campaign headquarters from Washington to Nashville, Tenn., to distance himself from the president: "I'm proud of the work that I have been doing as part of the Clinton-Gore administration."

Bradley has not addressed the question of Clinton fatigue, but his strategists are banking on an electorate eager for change. Last week, Bradley continued to portray himself as the candidate of change in outlining a health-care package that went well beyond a proposal outlined by Gore.

Gore finds himself trying to juggle parallel legacies of the Clinton administration: embracing the policies that have sparked prosperity and eliminated the federal budget deficit, while distancing himself from the scandals that led to Clinton's impeachment and ultimate acquittal.

"It's always difficult for a vice president to chart his own course in the eyes of most voters," said Alan Secrest, a Democratic pollster and strategist.

"It's hard to argue that there isn't a certain Clinton fatigue that is affecting the Gore campaign. He was hoping to distinguish himself but was forced to carry water in defending the president during the impeachment. ... He's going to have to show his own direction."

Will this so-called Clinton fatigue evaporate, giving way to a new wave of appreciation of the administration's accomplishments in time to boost Gore? Or will the mood for change persist long enough to hurt the vice president? Historical precedents exist for both.

In 1988, Reagan's poll numbers spiked upward as the presidential election approached from a low of 43 percent in March to 57 percent in November, according to Gallup. At the same time, then-Vice President Bush eliminated Dukakis' lead and won the election with 53 percent of the vote.

In the years before the 1960 election, Eisenhower saw his popularity dip after his public denial that U.S. spy planes were flying over the Soviet Union was proven false when the Soviets shot down a U-2 plane and captured its pilot.

Shirley Anne Warshaw, a political scientist at Gettysburg College and the author of "The Eisenhower Legacy: Re-examining the Eisenhower Presidency," said anger at Eisenhower subsided and "the public went into the 1960 election with enormous love for Eisenhower." Still, it wasn't enough to save Vice President Richard M. Nixon, who lost to John F. Kennedy by slightly more than 100,000 votes.

"These presidents experienced the same thing at the end of their terms," Milkis said, though he cautioned that none carried the kind of baggage shouldered by Clinton.

"He is still the first elected president to be impeached," Milkis said. "These scandals are a powerful part of the Clinton legacy that Gore will have to deal with. I don't know if the perfect word is fatigue, but there is certainly a level of tiredness."

J. Scott Orr wrote this article for Newhouse News Service.

Pub Date: 10/10/99

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