Posted on August 31, 1998 in Washington Watch

President Clinton’s political crisis is by no means over. In fact, it may soon become more complicated and difficult.

While some supporters of the President continue to point to polling data that shows strong public approval of the President’s job performance, the polls also show some unsettling results. It is true that two-thirds of the public still feels Clinton has done a good job. The same percentage feels that the scandal story has gone on too long and should be ended. At the same time, almost 75 percent do not want the President to resign or be impeached by the Congress.

While all those factors remain on the President’s side, the President’s personal ratings have plummeted, with some polls showing that as many as 60 percent of the public do not like the President personally and express real concern about his having lied about the Monica Lewinsky affair.

If the opinions of the public were the only factors to be considered, however, the President’s position might be secure. What is creating the biggest headaches for the White House, however, is not the public mood, rather it is the steady, hostile, anti-Clinton barrage of articles, editorials and commentary in print and on television–all in the mainstream media.

There is a virtual chorus of denunciations of the President for having lied, for having had sex with an intern and for “breaking trust with his wife and the American people.” Many of these in the past week have called on the President to resign and “spare the country any further embarrassment.” Even the support that many in the press gave to the President for having bombed Sudan and Afghanistan didn’t stop the protest. The fact that most commentators questioned the timing of the attacks and wondered aloud whether it had to do with the scandal, reinforced their conviction that the President, having lied for seven months about the Lewinsky affair, could no longer be immediately believed.

What is interesting here is that while the public appears willing to compartmentalize their feelings about the President–in other words, “yes he lied about his personal life, but I still trust his leadership judgments”–the press was not willing to take this same step.

This continuing media assault is taking a toll, not immediately on public opinion, although the public may be affected if this barrage of anti-Clinton attacks continues. The first groups to feel the pressure are elected officials in both parties.

August is a congressional recess with all members of Congress back in their home districts campaigning for the fall elections. While there, they are facing sustained questioning by local press about the President’s behavior–and some, in an effort to save their political careers, have begun to distance themselves from Clinton.

Republicans obviously have taken the lead in joining the call for the President’s resignation. A Republican leader in the Congress announced last week that he has begun a formal campaign to promote that goal. Democrats, on the other hand, are in a quandary. Most do not want to see the President suffer any further injury, fearing that as his role diminishes their party’s chances in November may also suffer. But some in the party privately feel that if Clinton can not win back trust, the assault will continue causing further damage to his Presidency and to the party.

The President, himself, is facing the challenge of his political career. His admittedly weak apology speech on the evening of his grand jury testimony did not succeed in putting the scandal to rest. While some advisors are recommending yet a second speech, the President is now making a few forays out into the public to test the climate. His upcoming rip to Russia for a summit with President Boris Yeltsin is to be one of Clinton’s opportunities to display leadership and see if the media and public responds favorably. The ongoing chaos in Russia, however, isn’t helping here.

But when the President returns and Congress reconvenes in September, the real test will come. By then we will know if Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr intends to deliver an impeachment report to Congress and what that report will contain.

If, as expected, the graphic details of Monica Lewinsky’s testimony to the grand jury become public, the President’s embarrassing situation will only worsen. And if congress and the press continue to focus on the scandal it will become increasingly difficult for the President or Democrats to raise any issues of substance in order to define their agenda for the November elections.

If, at that point, the President cannot find a way to firmly put the scandal behind him (and only a direct and convincing apology will do–there is no way that this matter can be sidestepped), win back public trust and reestablish the ability to define the issues being discussed in the media–then he will be confronted with a fateful choice.

Even with strong public support, his Presidency and his ability to lead his party and the country will be seriously questioned. He will then have to decide whether to continue to endure the onslaught of controversy and a long-drawn out congressional impeachment process (and the accompanying embarrassing press coverage it will generate) or to resign.

It is still too early to count Bill Clinton out, he may yet find a way to ride out this storm. If he succeeds, it will be the most remarkable comeback of his career.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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