I thought it best to start the new year the way President Clinton apparently begins each day -- by looking at poll results. And according to a new CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll, the president beat Billy Graham, the pope and Colin Powell as America's most admired man. Before a new generation of politicians begins to draw all the wrong lessons from this, "most admired man" seems to be a title that comes with the president's job -- like chief executive, commander in chief, leader of the free world.
Every year since this poll was started over 50 years ago, the winner has almost always been the sitting president -- whether that was John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton.
No offense to the president, the preacher, the pope and the Powell, but it's also a conclusion reached exclusively through polling. And if there is one worthwhile resolution with which to start the new year, it is to stop trusting polls, stop depending on polls, stop answering pollsters when they call. Mercifully, the response rate to polls is declining sharply, with Americans simply getting fed up with annoying calls from strangers.
"Most polling firms," wrote Humphrey Taylor, chairman of Louis Harris and Associates, report "refusal rates in the 35 percent to 45 percent range." When unanswered telephones are added to the outright refusals, the total response rates can be well under 40 percent. Taylor called this "a massive source of potential error." Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute called it "the dirty little secret of the profession."
Remember who was the most admired man in America after the Gulf War? And who was soundly defeated by an upstart governor less than two years later? Remember, even more amazingly, when Dick Thornburgh ran for the Senate in Pennsylvania in 1991. He was 40 points ahead of his opponent Harris Wofford when the race began and 10 points behind after the votes had been counted -- a 50 point swing.
But beyond the fickleness of polls is the shallowness of what they measure. This is not the admiration born from great deeds or courageous acts but from the high name recognition that comes from holding the most powerful office on Earth. Polls like this measure -- and quite accurately too -- which appropriate Important Person a respondent can think of when asked out of the blue in an unexpected phone call.
There is also the high approval rating that comes from doing nothing to offend -- and the fact that Clinton is a president operating in a vacuum without a leader of the opposition. Even better for him, the titular leader, Speaker Newt Gingrich, is disliked by a good majority of the American public and a goodly share of his own party.
Given the leverage and latitude that this situation gives the president, what does he choose as the cornerstone of his second term? Something full of hazards, obstacles and rough terrain: golf.
Yes, it appears that the president plans to travel to his spot in history in a golf cart. Wherever the president goes -- Florida, St. Thomas, South Carolina -- there, the president golfs. According to a former administration official, "Clinton is determined to beat Dwight Eisenhower's record for most presidential rounds in a year -- 100."
If it is true that we get the president we deserve, it is even truer that whom we admire says just as much about us as about the object of our admiration. And right now, we admire someone who, by golfing through his second term, feeds our illusion that all is well.
Clinton once said, quoting advice from a college friend, that "great presidents don't do great things. Great presidents get a lot of other people to do great things." But in 1998, admired presidents don't have to do either. They can just perpetuate the numbing of America to the crises in our midst. We read, for instance, the statistics about 15 million children growing up at risk, their lives mired in violence, poverty and neglect. We nod with concern. And so does the president. But it's really quite hard to say or do anything that will make a difference while holding a nine iron. Or a wedge. Or a driver. It's as if both the nation and its president are too self-absorbed to tackle anything urgently important.
The paradox of modern politics is that Americans yearn for a strong leader to lead them at the very moment when their elected leaders are slaves to public opinion polls. And no one more so than the most admired man in America. In his three years in office, President Kennedy commissioned 16 polls. In his first two and a half years in office, President Clinton commissioned 150.
Clinton's presidency has been the apotheosis of polling instead of leading. And the public -- it is true -- has rewarded him for it. But before we revise our books on political leadership, let's wait for one of the following three things to happen: for the economy to turn, for one of the festering crises to burst to the surface or for a leader to emerge who will fire his pollsters, think for himself and work to build a consensus for what he believes. And then let's watch just how fast the president's approval ratings go south.
In the meantime, a nation is breathlessly waiting to see whether the most admired man in America can get his handicap under 5.
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