Americans Begin To Focus on Whitewater

OVER the past three months ``Whitewater'' has taken on all the trappings of a major political scandal within the United States political community. But what have been the reactions of regular citizens? Has President Clinton really been hurt politically thus far? If he has, among what groups? Are there any clues as to how Whitewater is likely to play out in the court of public opinion?

The public has been tuning in on Whitewater more slowly than have the press and official Washington. This is no surprise. It's only been since the appointment of Robert B. Fiske Jr. as special counsel, on Jan. 20, that the scandal has begun to take shape for most Americans. In a poll held Jan. 15-17 by the Gallup Organization, just 15 percent said they had been following Whitewater developments ``very closely.'' An ABC News/Washington Post survey of Jan. 20-23 found just 2 percent saying they knew a ``great deal'' about the matter and another 13 percent a ``good amount.''

Polls taken in March, though, show a fairly striking increase in the general public's attentiveness. One done for CBS News and the New York Times on March 8-10 found, for example, 30 percent of respondents saying they had heard or read ``a lot'' about Whitewater - up from 17 percent in mid-January and 20 percent in mid-February in the polls of these news organizations. With the special counsel's investigations moving ahead and congressional hearings coming up, it's virtually certain that Whitewater and all of its spin-off developments will come into increasingly sharp focus for the public in the months immediately ahead. The process of focusing and clarifying has begun.

This is important, because it means that the public opinion part of the judgment on Whitewater is likely to change drastically. Up to now, even though attention has been growing of late, a majority of Americans really haven't been tuned in. This isn't to say they have been indifferent. The public has made it clear it wants a full accounting. Still, the essence of its response to the unfolding of Whitewater to date is summarized nicely in a CBS/New York Times survey question posed March 8-10. Asked whether they thought ``Bill and Hillary Clinton did or did not do something wrong'' in Whitewater, 20 percent said they did, 16 percent said they did not, while a decisive 61 percent answered, in effect, ``We need to know more.''

Up to now the public's responses to questions on Whitewater have been governed more by preexisting views of Mr. Clinton than anything else. Clinton won election in 1992 despite widespread doubts about him on matters involving his personal character. Americans do not expect their presidents to be saints, but they do want them to be exemplars of high standards.

A great many did not see him as such, even though they admired his political skills and energy and hoped he would be an agent of needed change.

Even before Whitewater began grabbing headlines a few months ago, Clinton had already suffered a substantial erosion of public support on the ``trust and character'' dimension. His overall presidential approval rating was already 10-15 points below what it might otherwise have been expected to be - for a new-to-office president operating with great political energy in a booming economy. His approval scores have declined 5 percentage points or so over the last month, but this hasn't come from any decisive judgment on Whitewater. The falloff is due mostly to the fact that the administration appears to be foundering; this has peeled off a layer of what had been very soft support.

Three-fifths or so of the public acknowledge that they don't know enough about what really happened in the Whitewater affair and want to know much more, so it's not surprising that differences in response by social group on Whitewater-related questions are on the whole muted. Women generally give Clinton higher support than men do, but their judgments on Whitewater so far look pretty much the same as men's. For example, 48 percent of women, compared to 53 percent of men, said in a Gallup survey of March 11-13 that they believed Clinton was hiding something concerning his role in Whitewater matters; 38 percent of women and 39 percent of men said he wasn't. Differences by education are also modest.

The big differences in Whitewater judgments come just where one would expect them at this point, when most people acknowledge they need more information. They come, that is, between Democrats and Republicans. If I don't yet know much about what really happened, I have only my partisanship to guide me. Thus, asked in the March 11-13 Gallup survey whether they thought Clinton was hiding something about his part in Whitewater, 74 percent of Republicans said he was, as against just 31 percent of Democrats. (Independents were right in between: 52 percent said the president was hiding something.)

As more Americans get more information on Whitewater in the months ahead, as they surely will, and come to public judgment, what is that judgment likely to be? The answer depends, of course, on the direction in which the new information points. Still, it seems doubtful that the large segment of the US public that has had questions about Clinton on ``character'' grounds since they first got a good look at him in 1992 will be reassured as the explication of Whitewater proceeds. Most likely, public confidence in Clinton and his administration will be eroded at least a bit further.

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