Introduction and Summary

As Inauguration Day approaches, Bill Clinton is getting his highest ever approval rating (59%). Favorable opinion of Congress is also up sharply (56%) as the GOP begins its second consecutive term of control for the first time in more than sixty years. Newt Gingrich is the only unpopular national leader in the picture (65% unfavorable), according to the latest Pew Research Center survey.

Although the public is feeling better about its national leaders for the most part, Americans have a partisan view of the national agenda. Fixing Social Security is the only top priority issue that gets equal emphasis from Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Three-in-four Americans want action from Washington on this problem. Improving the educational system gets a comparably high rating from the public. Reducing crime, improving the job situation, taking steps to make Medicare financially sound, and reducing the budget deficit follow in the public’s ranking of important issues.

Republicans give higher priority than Democrats to reducing the budget deficit. They also give higher priority than Democrats to dealing with the nation’s moral crisis and cutting the capital gains tax. Democrats assign relatively higher rankings to education, jobs, crime and protecting Medicare. They also place much more emphasis than Republicans on dealing with the problems of the poor, protecting the environment, and working to reduce racial tension. Independents fall between members of the two parties on this latter set of issues.

The importance of fixing Social Security is also seen in the amount of public attention paid to news about recent proposals to reform the system. Nearly two-thirds (64%) reported closely following stories about the proposals to reform Social Security (29% said they paid very close attention). Only interest in the storms in the Pacific Northwest attracted more public attention this month. However, Social Security even out polled the bad weather for news interest among people 65 years of age and older.

Albright Reaction

By more than three-to-one, Secretary of State designate Madeleine Albright is a big hit with the American public. Her 57% favorable, 16% unfavorable rating is better than that of her fellow Cabinet officer, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (43% to 17%). She also receives a better public evaluation than did her predecessor, Warren Christopher (34% to 21%).1 Although she is the highest ranking female American official in history, Albright is no more popular among women than men (57%/57%). Also surprising is that although she has been a member of the Clinton Cabinet, she was rated favorably by a 54% majority of Republicans.

Clinton’s second honeymoon with the American public is typical for second term presidents and comparable to Ronald Reagan’s standing after reelection in January 1985. The President’s ratings have improved most since mid- year among people under 50 years of age. Hillary Clinton’s public image has changed little over the past six months. Her favorability rating is lower than the President’s (57% vs. 66%, respectively), which is unusual for a First Lady.

Clinton’s approval ratings are high despite the reemergence of the Paula Jones allegations and growing public concern about campaign contributions made to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) from Indonesian sources. Fully 70% of those polled said the campaign finance controversy is an important issue, and 63% said a special committee in Congress should be set up to investigate these charges — up from 54% in November.2

By way of comparison, 79% think that Newt Gingrich’s admission that he gave false statements to the House Ethics Committee is an important issue. However, when asked to choose between the Democratic campaign finance irregularities or the charges against Gingrich, the public split on which was more serious — 39% said the DNC contributions, 36% the Gingrich charges.

Opinion of Gingrich himself is highly partisan: 80% of Democrats and 68% of Independents have an unfavorable opinion of him, while 54% of Republicans hold a favorable view of the Speaker. Among those who have been following the Gingrich story very closely, nearly four-in-ten hold a very unfavorable view of the Speaker. This compares with 26% of the general public.

Party Woes

The drumbeat of coverage on the Gingrich ethics story continues to weigh down approval ratings for the GOP Congressional leadership. Just 38% approve of their policies and proposals, much as throughout the last year. But the leadership’s disapproval rating has fallen steadily over the last year, from 54% to 43% now.

News of the DNC fund-raising scandal has not had any immediate impact on public perceptions of the Democratic Party. Ratings of the party are about where they were four years ago, when Clinton embarked on his first term. As with the Gingrich ethics story, however, those who have been paying close attention to news about the DNC problem express more negative opinions: 18% hold a very unfavorable view of the party, compared to 8% of the general public.

While men and women are equally likely to see the DNC story as important, there is a gender gap in perceptions of the Gingrich charges. Eighty-three percent of women said the issue of Gingrich’s ethics is important, compared to 74% of men. Young people are less concerned than older ones about the DNC controversy; 62% of those under 30 said it is important compared to 77% of those over 50. There is no such generation gap with regard to the charges against Gingrich.

Republicans more than Democrats view the DNC story as important, though a strong majority of Democrats (64%) agreed the story is an important one. Similarly, Democrats more than Republicans view the Gingrich story as important. Even so, seven-in-ten Republicans said it is an important issue.

Almost one-fourth of Americans followed the stories about Gingrich’s ethics charges very closely (23%), a slightly larger number than paid attention to news about foreign campaign contributions to the Democratic Party (17%). Republicans and Democrats followed the Speaker’s ethics case in roughly equal proportion (24% of Republicans and 29% of Democrats said they are following very closely). Republicans were slightly more likely to have paid attention to the stories about money given to the DNC (22% followed it very closely, compared to 16% of Democrats). Among those who have been following both stories very closely, a plurality viewed the DNC’s potential violations as more serious than the Speaker’s (48% vs. 30%).