Chatterbox Goes Soft on Clinton

Watching a C-SPAN replay last night of President Clinton’s press conference (click here to watch it; click here to read a transcript), Chatterbox was struck by the chief executive’s comfort and ease. Here’s a sample exchange:

Q: Another question about the presidential race. Aside from asking George W. Bush to come forward and give specifics on the issues that you mentioned, could you tell us what you find objectionable about his trying to present a new moderate face for his party just like you did for the Democrats? And could you tell us whether you’re worried whether he will figure out how the Republicans can occupy the center of American politics?A: No.Q: Do you have any hints?A: No, no, I don’t think I’ll answer those questions.[Laughter.]I will say. I will–no, look, let me say again I wouldn’t even agree with the characterization you gave of my first answer. When I ran for president in 1991, the first thing I did was tell the American people what I thought was going on in our country and what I would do. And if you remember, the late Senator Paul Tsongas and I were actually almost ridiculed at the time because we both put out these very detailed plans of what we would do. If you go back and get one of those plans now, you’ll see that virtually everything we said we’d do, we did do, except for the things we tried to do and were defeated on.

Clinton’s relaxed press posture seemed strikingly reminiscent of President John F. Kennedy, whose image has been all over the tube these last few days in the sad aftermath of his son’s death. Chatterbox, who’s had trouble looking at Bill Clinton on TV for at least a year, found himself .. liking the president. What’s that all about?

Chatterbox has a hypothesis: President Clinton is easier to like when his popularity ratings go down.

According to the Roper Center’s Presidential Job Performance Web site, Clinton enjoyed his highest-ever job approval–73 percent–during December of last year and January and February of this year. This, of course, was the time of Clinton’s impeachment and Senate trial. Clinton’s bad behavior throughout the Flytrap scandal–especially his smug refusal to confess to perjury during the impeachment proceedings–made him easy to despise. And yet (no doubt largely because congressional Republicans were overplaying their hand), the public gave Clinton more support than had ever been enjoyed by Richard Nixon (personal best: 67 percent) or even Ronald Reagan (personal best: 68 percent–mass adulation of Ronald Reagan being a largely retrospective phenomenon). Clinton also hit 73 percent early in 1998, right after Flytrap broke. In that instance, the public was probably expressing disapproval of the press.

As the impeachment drama dissipated, though, and Congress and the press started to lay off, Clinton’s approval rating dropped. Since May, it’s been between 50 and 60 percent. That isn’t bad, and it certainly isn’t Clinton’s absolute lowest approval rating as president—that would be 1993 and 1994, when Clinton’s popularity dropped on several occasions to 37 percent. Interestingly, this was a period when Chatterbox felt more enthusiastic about Clinton’s presidency than he has ever felt since. Still, in the vast sweep of history, a 50 to 60 percent approval rating isn’t particularly great–it’s about where President Kennedy’s lowest job-approval rating sat. And Clinton’s approval rating is higher than the rating for his policies (an ass-backward situation, in Chatterbox’s view, since Clinton-the-person is usually much easier to hate than Clinton-the-policymaker). Clinton’s explanation for this at yesterday’s press conference, which seemed a bit of a reach, was: “People think things are going well, but they want a change in policy … particularly in a dynamic time where things are changing, you should want continued change.”

But back to Clinton’s newfound likability. Chatterbox knows what you’re thinking: Chatterbox is a reporter. Reporters always like to take popular people down, and they’re trained to sympathize with underdogs (“afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted”). Chatterbox will grant that some of this crude psychology may be at work.

But part of it was also Clinton’s performance. He just seemed more relaxed yesterday–less of a snake-oil salesman, less apt to be pissed-off by rude questions, more willing to hit back, but in a good-natured way, and more confident about his own achievements. Clinton’s primary message–don’t let the Republicans spend the surplus on tax cuts–didn’t seem all that urgent, since it’s not clear that even the House Republicans have a majority to do that. But for the first time since Flytrap, Chatterbox felt himself thinking, possibly against his better judgment, that maybe Clinton wasn’t such a bad guy after all.