America: Opinion polls defy pundits

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The allegations against Bill Clinton in the Lewinsky scandal seem grave, but his popularity around the country is actually soaring. David Usborne finds at least one explanation: it's the economy, stupid.

It seems as if Americans have wandered into Alice in Wonderland territory. Their sitting president is facing a scandal that threatens his very hold on power and yet they seem unwilling to acknowledge it. Indeed, one poll published yesterday gave him his highest approval rating since his election in 1992.

The survey, conducted by Gallup for USA Today and CNN, showed 67 per cent of American voters expressing satisfaction with Bill Clinton's performance as president. This compared with his previous all-time high of 62 per cent.

The poll offers a stark counterpoint with regard to public perceptions of the other protagonists in the scandal. Only 20 per cent of those questioned said they had a positive view of Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel leading the investigation into the White House, while Monica Lewinsky, with whom Mr Clinton is alleged to have cavorted, wins support from only 13 per cent.

The numbers suggest that the White House strategy of recent days is paying off. Mr Clinton has contributed with a State of the Union address on Tuesday that underscored American prosperity and offered a series of sure-fire popular initiatives, from raising the minimum wage to increasing investment in education. And on Wednesday he thrilled audiences in the Midwest showing off his campaigning skills.

And Hillary Clinton, who has taken to the airwaves to accuse Mr Starr of belonging to a right-wing conspiracy, has clearly played her part also.

Indeed, there may even be a martyring process under way. It could hardly be more ironic, but as the President finds himself up against a wall in Washington, his second term has been powered up by the allegations.

The voters' views will influence what happens on Capitol Hill. Members of the House, all of whom face re-election this year, may balk before going down the impeachment path if doing so would pit them against public sentiment.

"The public really like his performance. They're pretty hardened about what goes on in politics," observed Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center.

"The most stunning thing is that the public is saying that, yeah, this probably happened and we can deal with that, if it's all that happened, as long as there was no lying or an effort to obstruct justice."

Mr Clinton's single greatest asset is the extraordinary strength of the economy. His position brings to mind the famous mantra of his 1992 election campaign, "It's the economy, stupid". America is enjoying declining interest rates, the lowest unemployment rates of a generation and rising levels of income. Voters are more interested in their wallets than in Lewinsky.

Joan Beck of the Chicago Tribune offered this to suggest that some Americans may never desert the President, whatever the facts turn out to be:

"It's no use trying," said Alice. "One cannot believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast".