A majority of Americans now believes President Clinton probably broke the law and should be censured but not forced from office for lying about his sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, according to a new Washington Post survey.
At the same time, the poll found that most Americans continue to praise Clinton's stewardship of the nation's economy and the overall job he is doing as president--even as they increasingly question his personal behavior and express growing doubts about his long-term ability to lead.
Clinton's job approval rating stood at 56% in the new survey, down from 66% in a Post-ABC News poll three weeks ago. Seven in 10 said they approve of the job he is doing handling the economy. But barely half of all Americans said they have a favorable impression of the president, and his ratings for honesty, integrity and personal morality fell to record lows.
Still, the president remains far more popular than either House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) or independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, whose four-year, $40-million investigation of Clinton evolved from an inquiry into a failed Arkansas land deal into a chronicle of the president's most intimately personal behavior. Seven in 10 said they expect Clinton to serve out his term, and six in 10 said he has apologized enough for his behavior.
Those results probably will be reassuring to beleaguered White House aides who had feared that Starr's explicit account of Clinton's affair with Lewinsky could send the president's job rating and overall popularity into free fall.
A number of weekend surveys found no such dramatic shift. Instead, the changes were mostly modest--though in a troublesome direction for the president.
For many Americans, the Starr report, publicly released Friday, appears to have provided explicit detail--too much detail, most said--about things they already knew or suspected. Two out of three said they weren't surprised by the evidence of wrongdoing contained in the report.
It was "about what I expected it was going to be," said Yolanda Thompkins, 20, a bank teller and college student who lives in Atlanta and was interviewed for the Post poll. "I figured that the report would come out unfavorable toward the president, and that's basically what I've heard."
More than six in 10 said there was "too much unnecessary detail" about Clinton's sexual encounters with Lewinsky, and less than a third said these sometimes graphic descriptions of sex acts were necessary for Starr to make his case. Americans are more inclined to believe Starr's version of the facts than Clinton's account of his relationship with Lewinsky, according to an ABC News poll.
The survey also suggests that the Starr investigation into the Lewinsky scandal may have severely damaged Clinton's ability to govern the country and command his party.
Half of those interviewed predict the scandal will have a "major impact" on the president's ability to lead--up from 32% less than three weeks ago. The proportion of Americans who said they now trust Republicans in Congress rather than Clinton to deal with the country's most serious problems has increased.
"With the legal investigations continuing and everything, I just don't see that he can think clearly," said John Norbeck, 39, a software engineer in Barrington, N.J., interviewed for the Post poll. "I believed he was doing a good job. But I just don't think that he can do the job any longer."
At total of randomly selected adults were interviewed Friday through Sunday. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The Post poll and other surveys come as many lawmakers sought guidance from their constituents and from the polls about the next steps to take in response to the Starr report, which outlined 11 possible grounds for impeachment. The document generated unprecedented media coverage; by Saturday night, nine in 10 Americans told CBS poll-takers that they had read or heard accounts of the report.
The early polls suggest a public consensus has emerged that Clinton must be punished in some way for lying about his relationship with Lewinsky. Six in 10 said they think that Congress should "censure or officially reprimand" Clinton, according to the Post poll.
"He needs to be reprimanded; he knows it," said Nancy Hills, 48, an office manager in Los Angeles. "There's nothing impeachable. I'm not going to plow through 445 pages. There's just nothing new there we didn't already know. They spent $40 million on something a lot of ex-wives could tell you that you could get for a thousand dollars or so from a detective."
While public support grows for a congressional reprimand, the Post poll found that Americans strongly reject impeaching Clinton or forcing him to resign from office, though other surveys suggest the public supports going ahead with impeachment hearings.
According to the Post survey, six in 10 Americans said Clinton should not be impeached on the basis of what they know now, and a similarly large proportion doesn't want him to resign. (However, other surveys suggest that the proportion favoring impeachment could rise if it is proven that Clinton urged Lewinsky to lie under oath.)
"I don't think it's necessary," said Ray Bradshaw, 67, a retired steeplejack living in Fremont, Ohio. "Just drop the whole matter. He already admitted it, so what the devil is the difference?"
The Post survey suggests that the public is already polarized on the issue of impeachment. Of the third who favor impeachment, the overwhelming majority said they "strongly" favor it. But among the majority who oppose impeachment, an equally large majority--nine in 10--said they "strongly" reject it. Those results portend a bitter, highly partisan struggle ahead if the House pursues the impeachment option.