Bill Clinton's popularity is rooted in high favorables with non-Democrats and a positive economic legacy
Bill Clinton remains the most popular living ex-president. In an era when poll answers frequently can be predicted by which party a person identifies with, Bill Clinton receives high marks from both independents and Democrats. Even one in three Republicans thinks well of him. In the latest Economist/YouGov Poll, nearly twice as many adults have a favorable as an unfavorable view of the former president.
What is striking is how few Americans say their opinion of Clinton is “very unfavorable.” Just 14% think that, though nearly twice as many Republicans do.
By comparison, opinions of current President Barack Obama are far more negative. In fact, somewhat more overall express an unfavorable than a favorable opinion of Obama. While Democrats’ opinion of Obama are the same of their opinions of Clinton, non-Democrats are decidedly negative. For example, only 6% of Republicans say their opinion of Obama is positive, and independents are overwhelmingly negative about the incumbent.
Overall, 38% of the public are “very unfavorable” towards President Obama.
1990s prosperity stands out in Clinton legacy
What sets former President Clinton apart is that he is viewed as accomplishing much when it came to the economy: from a list of possible achievements of the Clinton presidency, more than half the sample chose either economic prosperity or balancing the budget as the top success. Democrats picked economic prosperity over the budget by nearly two to one; for Republicans, balancing the budget ranked first (Republicans consistently express more interest than Democrats do when it comes to balancing the budget).
The current president will probably not be remembered for his success on the economy. Since the start of the Obama administration, with few exceptions, more Americans have believed the economy was getting worse than thought it was improving. This week is no exception. 24% say the economy is improving; 31% think it is getting worse.
The worst failure of the Clinton presidency? Far and away, it was the Lewinsky scandal, chosen by 36% overall. About one in ten chose other items, like the lack of health care reform, NAFTA, and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy towards homosexuality. One in ten Republicans point to the assault weapons ban.
Welfare reform gets high marks
One of the longer term legacies of the Clinton presidency is welfare reform. And it is one of the few items on which Republicans and Democrats agree. Overwhelming majorities in all party groups approve of the Clinton welfare reform – with Republicans even more approving than Democrats.
African-Americans, while positive, are a little less so than the overall public. 21% of them disapprove of the Clinton welfare reform program.
The test of any welfare reform program is whether or not it puts people back to work and thus reduces the welfare rolls. This isn’t something most Americans think has happened. Only 26% believe the Clinton welfare reform succeeded in increasing employment among those on welfare. Again, there is partisan agreement on this.
The other Clinton
There is another Clinton waiting in the wings for a possible run for the Presidency in 2016, the former President’s wife, Hillary Clinton. She has typically been the most well-liked of all those who are being mentioned as candidates in 2016, Republican and Democrat. This week is no exception. However, perhaps because of her husband’s great popularity, the former Senator and Secretary of State may suffer by comparison. This is one of the few weeks where those with unfavorable opinions slightly outnumber those with favorable ones. And in the poll, respondents were asked first about the ex-President, and later about his wife.
Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.