Political Pulse May 2006

The Clinton in the Rearview Mirror

The American public now considers Bill Clinton more honest than George W. Bush.
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How bad has it gotten for President Bush? Bad enough that, in the eyes of many Americans, his predecessor is looking better.

Remember what Bush said at his State of the Union speech last January? "This year, the first of about 78 million Baby Boomers turn 60, including two of my dad's favorite people—me and President Clinton"? His dad may not be alone in that opinion—or, at least, in his feelings about one of its principals.

This month, a CNN poll conducted by Opinion Research asked people for their personal opinion of George W. Bush. That's not job approval, it's popularity: Do you like the guy? The answer was no: 57 percent to 40 percent. The public's opinion of Bill Clinton? Almost the exact reverse—57 percent to 38 percent favorable.

The poll asked people to compare the last two presidents. "That's scary," said one woman interviewed in Atlanta. Which president do people think did a better job of handling the economy? The public picked Clinton by a mile (63 percent to 26 percent). For many Americans, the 1990s were boom years. "When he was president," one woman said, "my business did well, and I made a lot of money. I kind of miss that."

Who related better to problems affecting ordinary Americans? No contest—Clinton over Bush, 62 percent to 25 percent. Clinton felt your pain, which is very important when disaster strikes. Clinton was a natural when it came to handling natural disasters, such as the 1997 floods in North Dakota. That certainly contrasts with Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina.

On the other hand, Clinton raised taxes. Bush cut taxes. Who wins on that one? Surprise! Clinton, 51 percent to 35 percent.

After 9/11, national security became Bush's strongest issue. And now? People think that Clinton was better on national security by a nose (46 percent to 42 percent). What happened? One respondent said this about Bush: "He's got me concerned. We are in Iraq, and he's talking about going to Iran."

Now for a tough test—character. "Ethics kind of took a side trip for eight years while Clinton was in office," one man said. Bush campaigned in 2000 on a promise that he would swear "not only to uphold the laws of the land" but also to maintain "the honor and dignity of the office to which I have been elected." He had "Bush nostalgia" going for him: the recollection of his father's reputation for good character, even though the voters fired the first President Bush over his management of the economy.

So which president do Americans now consider more honest and trustworthy—the man who said, "I misled people, including even my wife," or the man who said, "If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action"? A close call, but slightly more people say Clinton (46 percent to 41 percent). That's right: The American public now considers Bill Clinton more honest than George W. Bush. The controversies over weapons of mass destruction and CIA leaks have taken a toll on Bush's reputation.

Could Clinton nostalgia be setting in? Many respondents said yes, citing the former president's "agenda for peace" and "more social programs for those in need." A few talked about the "Clinton nightmare," including the man who called Clinton a "womanizing, Elvis-loving, non-inhaling, truth-shading, abortion-protecting, gay-promoting, war-protesting, gun-hating Baby Boomer."

"I was not a Bill Clinton admirer," he added.

If there is such a thing as Clinton nostalgia, two potential Democratic presidential candidates in 2008 might benefit from it. The obvious one is Bill Clinton's wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. The other is his vice president, Al Gore, who many Democrats believe was robbed of the White House in 2000. After eight years of Bush, will Americans want to go back to the Clinton presidency? One woman responded, "Are those the only choices?"

Bill Clinton divided the country. So did George W. Bush. Who do people think divided it more? Bush, by a big margin (59 percent to 27 percent). The public now sees President Bush the way it once saw President Clinton—as a divider, not a uniter.

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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