The President's Credibility Gap

Clinton faces challenge of regaining his moral authority after admitting he 'misled' country about Lewinsky affair.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Has President Clinton's moral authority been so shattered that he will find it difficult to effectively govern the nation during what remains of his time in office?

That is one of the most important questions facing the United States in the wake of its chief executive's extraordinary admission that he "misled" the country and his family in the Monica Lewinsky matter.

Moral authority is about more than image, say presidential scholars. It's about trust and credibility, qualities a president needs when he asks some sacrifice of his fellow citizens, or bids them follow him on a march to somewhere unknown.

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It is not the only factor in the success or failure of a presidency. Its import depends on the circumstances of events and challenges facing a nation and its chief executive, as well as how it is combined with such other skills as political sense.

But it is a central element in effective leadership - in business, social, and religious life, as well as in the affairs of the nation.

Moral authority "is clearly important. It can be very useful to a president ... though it is more relevant in some situations than in others," says George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M in College Station.

For Mr. Clinton, the problem in his admission that he has lied for seven months about the Lewinsky matter is that it jibes with one of his most unflattering images, that of a "Slick Willie" willing to shade the truth.

He has been dogged by charges of obfuscation throughout his political career, dealing with everything from his relationship to Gennifer Flowers (he first denied that he'd had an affair with her, than admitted to a single dalliance) to questions about draft avoidance and college drug use.

It's a pattern not lost on Republicans in Congress, who would control any impeachment proceedings.

"I think his effectiveness as president is over. His moral authority is gone," says Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri, one of Clinton's harshest critics.

That's an opinion the public may come to share - but they don't at the moment. Initial opinion polls show that most Americans who watched his televised address are satisfied with his admission that he "did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate."

Moral authority is not the only virtue that a president needs, of course. In recent history, President Carter was considered a man of moral character, but his presidency was not particularly effective because he lacked political sense, points out presidential scholar Martha Joynt Kumar.

On the other hand, although President Reagan would often mix up fact and fiction, "these were questions that were not essential to his character," she says. Despite Iran-contra, Mr. Reagan was still able to articulate the difference between right and wrong, maintain credibility with the public, and leave a legacy of a militarily strong America that contributed to the downfall of Communist Europe.

Scholars variously define moral authority as "trust" or "credibility" - something much bigger than just telling the truth.

In a narrow sense, presidents need such trust in order to effectively handle the day-to-day jousting of Washington affairs. Otherwise, their promises to sign a bill if something is changed, or veto it if it isn't become meaningless to the other players in the game.

"Trust stands in the political system as money stands in the economic system. [It] allows transactions to be made," says John Kessler, a professor of political science at Ohio State. "In the absence of trust, you can't have political deals."

IN a larger sense, in times of stress the public won't follow a president who doesn't have moral authority. Sacrifice is needed to wade through war, economic depression, or social change. But these circumstances don't exist for Bill Clinton. The United States is enjoying a period of peace and prosperity. With the possible exception of the need to reform Social Security, there are few looming problems so dire that the president might ask sacrifice of US citizens to solve them.

"Sometimes, in the absence of problems, you can hold out," says Mr. Edwards, who refers to Clinton as a "caretaker" president.

Plus there are other aspects of the Clinton presidency that Americans respond well to. He is a world-class communicator, jetting all over the country to talk with locals in town halls or at events that - while they don't amount to much in the big picture - mean something to the people who are there.

Still, it's far from clear that Clinton's admission of guilt will defuse possible impeachment proceedings. Clinton critics said they were offended by the second part of his admission - an attack on the length and cost of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation.

"I don't think this is behind him. It's going to go on. It's a miserable situation," says Robert Dallek, a presidential historian.

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