Poll: Clinton Legacy Mixed

You can't trust him, he's got weak morals and ethics — and he's done a heck of a good job. That's the public consensus on Bill Clinton, whose tumultuous presidency ends Saturday.

Despite his prevaricating, his sexual misadventures and his impeachment by Congress, a remarkable 65 percent of Americans approve of the way Clinton has done his job — the best end-of-career rating of any postwar president (one point ahead of Ronald Reagan).

On some specifics Clinton's final ratings soar higher still. Sixty-seven percent say he's been a strong leader. Sixty-eight percent approve of his work on foreign affairs; on race relations, 73 percent approve; and on the economy — the mainstay of his overall approval — 76 percent endorse Clinton's performance.

Yet this is also a president with truly dismal personal ratings: Sixty-seven percent of Americans say he's not honest and trustworthy. Seventy-seven percent say he lacks high moral and ethical standards. And just 44 percent view him favorably "as a person."

Two Guys

It's an old story — The Tale of Two Clintons. Most people doubt the man personally, but most like his work professionally — precisely the separation that sustained Clinton through the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his subsequent impeachment.

Indeed, his job approval rating hit its all-time peak, 69 percent, just after the Lewinsky scandal erupted, and then reached almost as high, 68 percent, immediately after the Senate acquitted him of impeachment charges.

His low point, in fact, came years earlier: A 43 percent job approval rating in June 1993, as his new administration floundered and the economy remained weak.

It Really Was the Economy

As usual for a president, approval of Clinton's work has tracked closely with public perceptions of economic conditions — and he had either the good fortune or the skill to preside over the longest postwar expansion on record.

His job ratings broke out of the midrange starting in mid-1996, just as consumer confidence began to rally on the strength of growing incomes, low inflation and a strong job market. Before summer 1996 — meaning before the recovery hit home — Clinton's job approval rating averaged 51 percent. After summer 1996, it averaged 61 percent.

Put them together and Clinton's career average job rating is 57 percent, smack in the midrange for postwar presidents, alongside Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson.

Health

To be sure, not all Clinton's professional efforts win majority approval. The public divides in evaluating his work on the nation's health care system — 48 percent approve, but 45 percent disapprove.

At the time his ambitious health care proposals crumbled in 1994, disapproval was far higher — 60 percent. And today health care costs remain a top public priority for the incoming Bush administration — a major piece of unfinished business.

Crime and Punishment

Considering his high job ratings, it's noteworthy that a substantial minority of Americans, 45 percent, say Congress did the right thing by impeaching Clinton; 53 percent say otherwise.

But as objectionable as Clinton's behavior may have been, fewer favor further punishment: Sixty-one percent say that after he leaves office Clinton should not be charged with a crime for lying under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky.

Already, it does seem, some attitudes toward Clinton have mellowed. The number of people who say he should not be charged with a crime is 10 points higher now than it was just last summer. His favorable rating "as a person" likewise is 10 points better than it was a year ago. And 51 percent say they expect Clinton to go down in history as an "outstanding" or "above average" president — up 15 points in the last year, and better than the end-of-term judgments of Bush, Carter and Ford (though worse than Reagan's by 12 points and Eisenhower's by 14).

Groups

Views of Clinton are deeply divided along political and ideological lines. Ninety-three percent of Democrats approve of his job performance; this dives to 32 percent of Republicans. Eighty-six percent of liberals approve, compared to 44 percent of conservatives; and 90 percent of blacks approve, compared to 59 percent of whites.

On the economy, though, some of these differences ease. Clinton gets positive grades for handling the economy from majorities in virtually every demographic group — including 58 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of conservatives. Indeed, Clinton's fondest hope may be that his economic stewardship makes a page in the history books — not just his impeachment, and the personal behavior that led to it.

Methodology

This ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 11-15, 2001, among a random national sample of 1,513 adults. The results have a 2.5-point error margin. Fieldwork by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.

Previous ABCNEWS polls can be found in our Poll Vault.

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