Introduction and Summary

The American people had a mixed reaction to events in Washington last week. They continue to support Bill Clinton and all but ignore his Senate impeachment trial, which 88% describe as providing little that is new or interesting. But by a 52%-34% margin they also reject Clinton’s surprise proposal to put some Social Security funds into the stock market.

If Social Security funds do go into the stock market, the public would prefer the Republican approach of allowing workers to invest their own contributions. A 52% majority thinks this would work better than having Social Security funds invested in the stock market by an independent government board. But this is about the only good news for the GOP in the Pew Research Center’s latest public opinion survey, conducted daily January 19-25, 1999 to gauge reaction to the State of the Union address and Senate impeachment trial.

Political support for the president has remained strong, the Senate trial notwithstanding. Clinton’s approval rating rose to 66% following his State of the Union Address, which was graded an A or B by 70% of those who saw the speech, despite reservations about elements of Clinton’s Social Security proposal. Fully 63% of the public thinks Clinton should not be removed from office. And most (67%) say that they don’t expect the Senate to vote him out. Even among Republicans, only 18% believe the Senate will oust Clinton.

A majority of Americans (53%) do not think the Senate should call witnesses to testify in the impeachment trial. Not surprisingly, rank and file Republicans are much more supportive than are Democrats (63% vs. 21%). Independents are more closely split on the issue (41% favor and 51% oppose).

History, But Ho Hum

Perceptions of too much partisanship along with firm public convictions about Clinton himself have led most Americans to tune out the trial. On average about 17% of Americans said they watched or listened to the live coverage on each day during the study period. The exception was Tuesday, January 19, the first day of the White House lawyers’ presentation, when fully 31% followed the live proceedings.

Most Americans found little of interest in the news about the proceedings each day, but as many as one in five said that they were annoyed or angered by something they had heard in the news about the trial. Relatively few (24%) said they had discussed the impeachment with family or friends.

When asked why they are not following the trial more closely, almost half (47%) say that they haven’t paid more attention because the trial will have no impact on their assessment of Clinton.

A substantial minority (41%) also say the partisan nature of the trial is a reason for tuning it out. Almost as many (36%) cite the improbability of Clinton’s actual conviction. Inattention to politics in general and the insignificance of removal for conditions in the country were less often given as reasons for neglecting news of the trial.

Fix Social Security

While most Americans are skittish about investing Social Security funds in the stock market, support for using the federal budget surplus to help stabilize Social Security and Medicare has risen substantially in the past year. Half (50%) now favor using the surplus to reform the entitlement programs, rather than for a tax cut, other domestic programs, or to help pay off the national debt. Last January, just 32% said Social Security and Medicare should get the surplus funds first, while as many (33%) favored spending the money on other domestic programs.

But the public rejects Clinton’s State of the Union proposal to invest some Social Security funds in the stock market by a 52%-34% margin. What’s more, the resistance to the proposal is bi-partisan: while Republicans oppose the idea 59%-29%, Democrats also reject it, 51%-33%. Opposition is also high among senior citizens and Americans who are nearing retirement age.