Americans discussing Bill Clinton offer two very different pictures of the embattled incumbent. It's almost as if the public sees two Bills at the same time. And the tension between those portraits creates a dangerous dynamic for the president.
In early September, the Pew Research Center poll found that the public continued to give Clinton high marks for his job performance as president: 61 percent approved and only 33 disapproved. But the same poll said 64 percent didn't like Clinton personally, with only 33 percent saying they liked the Democratic incumbent.
An ABC News poll taken at about the same time found similarly high job approval ratings: Americans disapproved of the way Clinton behaves in his personal life by a 12-to-76 edge. Asked if they trusted Clinton on a personal level, the answer was a resounding no, 32 to 63.
How can a president survive such schizophrenia in the public's view?
The short answer is, he can't-for very long. This type of split undermines the president's ability to lead-his ability to put together the necessary political coalitions both domestically and around the world.
Not that we haven't seen splits between the public's view of the president personally and professionally in the past. Jimmy Carter suffered from almost the mirror image of Clinton's problem: Americans viewed Carter as a smart, decent, honest man-and a poor president. Carter had a squeaky clean, outsider's image that was absolutely central to his "out-of-nowhere" election victory in 1976. But faced with roaring inflation, Americans held hostage in Iran, and the perception that things were spinning out of control, Carter saw his favorable job ratings plunge to Nixonian levels. He seemed unable to steer the country back to stability and thus he lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Carter's personal image was the foundation for his electo ral success. He failed to build a successful presidency on top of that base, but that failure could have been turned into success with a couple of key triumphant actions in office.
The split in public perception for Clinton is far more treacherous. For Clinton, it could pave the way to the downfall of his presidency.
He already has the public's strong approval for his work in office. But high job-performance ratings are subject to quick erosion if Americans see the economy taking a turn for the worse or a hobbled president unable to manage the duties of office. The drumbeat of investigations, indictments, and possible impeachment proceedings could convince the public that Clinton just can't get the president's job done. Already by late summer, a 55-to-42 percent majority of the public said in the Pew poll that the controversy was interfering with Clinton's ability to run the country.
If the job ratings start to fall, the lack of support for the president on a personal level will make the dive in the job ratings that much faster and harsher.
And even if the economy continues strong and the government continues to function smoothly, Americans' view of the strength of the presidency is threatened by huge cracks in the foundation of their fundamental belief in Clinton the man. Presidents have demonstrated over and over again how crises and policy triumphs can rebuild damaged job performance ratings. Clinton says he wants to do the same for his personal ratings, to rebuild Americans' trust in him. But this task may simply be beyond him-or any president. There may be no way to rebuild Americans' trust in Clinton the man.