The Polls: Public Attitudes toward the First Lady

By Cohen, Jeffrey E. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2000 | Go to article overview

The Polls: Public Attitudes toward the First Lady


Cohen, Jeffrey E., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The institutionalization of the presidency suggests that we need to view the presidency as a collective enterprise and not only from the perspective of the person in office. Among the many consequences of institutionalization of the office has been the expansion of public expectations of the president and the office (Wayne 1982). Coupling the institutional development of the executive office with public expectations suggests the need to look at public evaluations of those associated with the office, like the First Lady, the vice president, and high-level presidential staff and executive officers, to determine what linkage, if any, exists between these other executive personnel and the president in the public mind. The logic of institutionalization suggests that presidents have allowed and fostered the institutional development of these offices because they provide some political, popular, and/or policy-making benefit to the president.

Since our interest here is with the public aspect of that question, we ask whether popular First Ladies (or vice presidents) reflect well on the president to the public. That is, does a popular First Lady lift a president's popularity, and perhaps more critically, does an unpopular First Lady (or vice president) harm a president's standing with the public? If not, perhaps we need to rethink our theories about why presidents have allowed and pushed for the institutional development of these attached executive offices.

In this regard, the appearance of an activist First Lady like Hillary Clinton is not merely an expression of her own personal and feminist orientations but also may relate to the ongoing development of the office of the presidency. Hillary Clinton has been a controversial First Lady not only because some people object to her policy activism and politically charged manner but also because at times she may have been a political liability and at other times a political asset to her husband. It is easy to illustrate her controversial image to the public. An October 1999 poll conducted by Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) News found that 34 percent of respondents thought that she had too much influence on the decisions Bill Clinton makes, compared with only 10 percent who suggested that she had too little influence (47 percent thought she had the right amount of influence).

One can suggest, for instance, that the failure of the health care reform effort in 1995, of which she was singled out for much of the blame, may be one example of her being a liability to the president. Bill Clinton's polls declined during that period. Similarly, the Vince Foster suicide and the Whitewater dealings seemed to point an accusing finger at the First Lady, enough so that she was brought before a grand jury for questioning in January 1996. We can ask, Did the way that the public viewed Hillary Clinton and her participation during these events and periods contribute independently to the president's poll declines? In contrast, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment proceedings of 1998 and early 1999, Hillary Clinton's public stock seemed to have risen because of her decision to stand by her husband and the view that she was harmed by his behavior. During that time period, Bill Clinton's job approval polls did not fall, as one might expect, but even seemed to have risen. Did the public view of Mrs. Clinton during this year of turmoil help boost or undergird the president's polls? The logic of the institutional development of the First Lady's offices suggests just such possibilities.

However, it is also possible that public attitudes toward Bill Clinton drove public orientations toward Mrs. Clinton or that public views of both of these personalities were not linked other than by the coincidence of circumstance. Because of her high visibility and activism on both the policy and political fronts, Mrs. Clinton stands as a good case to test these notions of the institutional development of the presidency and its associated executive offices. …

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