Hillary Rodham Clinton as First Lady: The People's Perspective

Hillary Rodham Clinton as First Lady:
The People’s Perspective

Northern Illinois University

This article examines Hillary Rodham Clinton’s relationship with the public with the
purpose of considering the first lady more generally as an overt policy adviser to the
president. The first lady’s level of support and opposition, the divergent views between
men and women, and a comparison with impressions of the president gives us insights into
presidential politics and gender roles in American politics and society.
   On February 6, 2000, after nearly eight years as first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton
announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate from New York. No other woman has ever
run for public office before or after serving in the role of first lady. This historic campaign
challenges students of politics to expand their traditional conceptions of politics and
provides a unique gender lens on American electoral politics. In this paper Hillary
Rodham Clinton’s relationship to the American public during her tenure as first lady is
examined. It explores how the public responded to Mrs. Clinton as she challenged
traditional stereotypes of the presidential spouse and sought to become a political leader
in her own right.
   First ladies have tended to be popular. To the extent that we have had public opinion
polls to measure how much Americans “like” their first lady, they have shown a public
supportive of these women, even those who have been outspoken and actively engaged in
their spouse’s administration. The public has been much more likely to be favorably
impressed than not with the individuals who have held this position and to approve of the
job they were doing. For example, during the 1980 presidential election campaign, only
9% of a national sample expressed an unfavorable opinion of first lady Rosalynn Carter.
Barbara Bush obtained an 85% favorable rating in an August 1992 poll and Nancy Reagan
tended to be viewed favorably by over 60% of the people, although her disapproval ratings
climbed near the close of the Reagan administration. (Burrell, 1997.)

This article was presented at the 1999 American Association of Public Opinion Researchers annual meeting.
* Direct correspondence to: Barbara Burrell, Public Opinion Lab, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL.

The Social Science Journal, Volume 37, Number 4, pages 529 –546.
Copyright © 2000 by Elsevier Science Inc.
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved. ISSN: 0362-3319.
530                                   THE SOCIAL SCIENCE JOURNAL Vol. 37/No. 4/2000

   Further, public opinion polls have shown that the American public has one set of
expectations for a first lady in the abstract—a set that stresses more traditional activities—
but, at the same time, has been favorably impressed with more activist first ladies in
particular. Here, the public has accepted a public policy advisory role in general, as long
as the person performing that role appears to be successful (Burrell, 1999). Historically,
the one systematic public opinion poll undertaken during the Roosevelt administration
showed Eleanor Roosevelt to be a very popular first lady (Gallup, 1939). Other examples
include Rosalynn Carter’s controversial trip to confer with Latin American heads of state
in 1977, which was met with approval upon her return, and the public generally applauded
Betty Ford’s outspokenness on issues and contemporary concerns (Burrell, 1997, p. 81).
   Several poll results illustrate this disjuncture between expectations and approval in
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s case. According to a US News & World Report January 1993
poll at the beginning of the Clinton administration, 59% of American adults opposed
Hillary Clinton “being a major advisor on appointments and policy” (Walsh, 1993). Yet,
after her appointment as head of the Health Care Reform Task Force, 59% reported in a
CBS/NYT poll that the assignment was “an appropriate position for a first lady.”1 In a
larger sense, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure challenged Eleanor Roosevelt’s years in the
White House in terms of being an involved, independent, and controversial presidential
spouse. It is thus important that we have an accurate reading on how the public responded
to her efforts to transform the first ladyship into a public policy advisory position in the
Executive Office of the White House.

In Public Opinion, the First Ladyship and Hillary Rodham Clinton (Burrell, 1997), it is
argued that the majority of the public perceived Hillary’s active role as a policy advisor
in the administration’s first year favorably and, had the Clintons been successful in
reforming the health care system, the first ladyship would have been further transformed.
However, the failure of that effort, continuing negative publicity about the Whitewater
affair and Hillary’s role in it, and several scandals linked to her in the early days of the
Clinton administration—most notably the travel office firings—led to a substantial decline
in the general public’s impressions of her and support for the job she was doing as first
lady. More general concerns about the role of a spouse in a presidential administration also
   After the demise of the Health Care Reform Task Force, Hillary Rodham Clinton
sought to reestablish herself as a popular first lady by engaging in a number of different
activities while maintaining a lower profile as a policy advisor. She focused her advocacy
on more traditional issues concerning women and children, and was visible internationally
serving as a goodwill ambassador and working on the rights and economic problems of
women globally. She also had to face the consequences of her husband’s sexual escapades
in the White House, which on a personal level greatly insulted her, and on a public level
resulted in an impeachment trial for the president.
   Newspaper headlines chronicled the story of Hillary’s popularity during the Clinton
presidency. Hillary Rodham Clinton began her tenure as a popular first lady. Headlines in
state newspapers proclaimed her popularity among their citizens: “Hillary Clinton’s
Hillary Rodham Clinton as First Lady                                                     531

Support Booms” headlined the Tennessee Commercial Appeal in March 1993; the Cin-
cinnati Post reported “First Lady Rates High in Ohio” in Mary 1993; and in Iowa, the Des
Moines Register headlined “Iowans Give Thumbs up to First Lady.” Nationally, we find
such headlines as “Activist Role Wins Approval” and “The president is clearly in second
place” (U.S.A. TODAY October 1 and 5, 1993). Headlines then reflected trends in public
opinion as she faced scrutiny over the failed health care plan and Whitewater, then
ultimately her re-emergence as a positive figure during the last years of the Clinton
presidency. Examples include: “First Lady’s Softer Focus Follows Drop in Popularity”
(Washington Post, 10/15/95); “First Lady Bears Brunt of Unfavorable Opinion on White-
water” (Washington Post, 3/24/96); “First Lady Finds Positive Image as She Turns 50”
(Wisconsin State Journal); “Hillary Clinton zooms in public esteem” (The Capital Times,
8/11/98); “Hillary Clinton: Popular and Hardly in Hiding” (New York Times, 8/12/98).
The Gallup Poll Monthly also captured the saga of Hillary’s relationship to the people:
“Hillary Clinton Maintains Public Support” (April 1994); “First Lady a Growing Liability
for Clinton,” (January 1996); and “First Lady’s Popularity Rebounds” (January 1997).
   Three measurements are used to assess trends in the public’s impressions of Hillary
Rodham Clinton during the tenure of the Clinton administration and give us a multifaceted
perspective: Gallup polls on her favorability ratings; polls asking about approval of the job
she was doing; and thermometer scale ratings from the 1992, 1994, 1996, and 1998
American National Election Studies. The data from the Gallup Polls have been obtained
from the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut archives and organized by the
   Figure 1 shows the national trend in favorable and unfavorable impressions, as mea-
sured in Gallup polls. The nadir in her popularity took place between mid 1994 and early
1997. Her popularity began its descent when Whitewater re-emerged as an issue in early
1994. In January 1994, President Clinton was forced to ask Attorney General Janet Reno
to appoint a special prosecutor. The low point in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s favorable
ratings occurred in the first months of 1996 when she was called before the grand jury in
the Whitewater investigation. An inspection of the decline of the trend line suggests that
the Whitewater scandal more than her overt policy advisory role accounts for Hillary’s
problems in maintaining a positive relationship with the American public. Reporting on
Whitewater focused on the first lady intensely at two points: early 1994 and January 1996.
Corresponding to this, her job approval rating dropped 17 points from early January 1996
to late January, while disapproval rose 16 points in CBS/NYT polls.2
   By the end of 1998, Hillary had once again achieved the same high level of favorability
that she had during the “honeymoon” days after the first inauguration. In January 1993,
67% of a national sample of adults said they had a favorable impression of her in a Gallup
poll. She did not achieve such a positive rating again until December 1998, when 67%
once more expressed a favorable opinion of her.3
   Hillary claimed she regained her popularity in the latter years of the second adminis-
tration, and a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press Poll in 1998 showed her
to be “the most popular national political figure in the country.” It found that 58% of
registered voters had a favorable opinion of her, whereas 36% had an unfavorable opinion.
That compared with ratings of 53–38% for Vice President Gore, 52– 44% for President
Clinton, 41– 49% for House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and 30 –27% for Senate Majority
Leader Trent Lott“ (Thomma, 1998). Her comeback was quite remarkable.

Figure 1.   Favorability Ratings for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gallup Poll Data.
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Hillary Rodham Clinton as First Lady                                                      533

   A second measurement of her relationship to the public is the reaction to Hillary as first
lady. A series of poll questions have asked people to rate the job she was doing as first lady
rather than their favorable or unfavorable opinion of her.4 The trend line in Figure 2 shows
that although approval declined slightly over the course of the first two years of the
administration, disapproval ratings climbed approximately 20 points, as the percentage of
people without an opinion declined. Hillary came into sharper focus during this period.
During 1995, she gradually recovered her fairly high job approval rating, which then
plummeted in January 1996 as she was forced to testify before the Whitewater grand jury.
In 1997, she was successful in reestablishing high approval ratings and moderating
negative responses to the job she was doing as first lady.
   The third group of measurements are the results of the American National Election
Studies (ANES) “thermometer ratings” scores. The ANES ask interviewees to rate how
warmly they feel toward an individual on a thermometer scale from 0 to 100 degrees.
Table 1 shows the mean ratings for both Clintons for four elections. In the first three
elections, Bill Clinton received a warmer rating than Hillary Clinton. However, both are
viewed more warmly than coldly, based on their mean scores in 1992 and 1996. But both
scores fell in 1994, with Hillary’s thermometer rating dropping more sharply than Bill’s,
even falling into the cold range (below 50 degrees). Here is a poignant indicator of the toll
the Whitewater scandal and the inability of the first lady and the administration to produce
any health care reform took on people’s feelings toward her. A reversal occurs in 1998,
which supports the findings of the previous tables. Hillary Clinton obtained a mean
thermometer rating of 62, higher than either she or the President had scored in earlier
elections and for the first time she surpassed the President.5
   Taken together, these three trend charts allow us to construct a summary picture of
Hillary’s relationship to the public as she proceeded through her tenure as first lady.
Hillary challenged stereotypical ideas of what the first lady should be about and thus
challenged traditional public opinion about the presidential spouse. She showed sensitivity
also to public opinion by both attempting during the first year not to be just an overt policy
advisor and initiator, but to publicly perform traditional hostess activities of the first
ladyship. She also lowered her public profile when things started to go wrong and sought
to find other ways to achieve prominence, again responding to perceptions. A clear
interaction emerges between opinion and performance. Further, the fact that her popularity
was restored in 1998 by not speaking out against her husband, after his scandalous
behavior with other women and public denials about it challenged feminists. But she was
seen as acting in a dignified manner, which gave her a base of support that she then used
to become a key figure in the 1998 election and generate momentum for her own
campaign at the end of the Clinton administration. She emerged as not so much an icon
of true womanhood as a political force, the most popular Democrat on the campaign trail.
   The public was supportive of her initial efforts to play a leadership role in a major
policy area, contrary to what our gender biases would have suspected. That she was then
demonized, and, due to subsequent events, later put “on a pedestal,” suggests a greater
complexity to public ideas about women’s leadership than originally envisioned when
Hillary Rodham Clinton became first lady. Her relationship with the public was a
fascinating mixture of public and private roles and complex reactions to her. From a
gender analysis perspective, it is particularly intriguing to consider Hillary’s rise in

Figure 2.   Job Approval Ratings for Hillary Rodham Clinton.
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Hillary Rodham Clinton as First Lady                                                                       535

                                        Table 1. Feeling Thermometer Ratings
                                         1992              1994                     1996              1998
                                   B.C.a      H.C.    B.C.      H.C.           B.C.      H.C.    B.C.      H.C.
Mean score                         56.10     54.64   54.33     47.81          58.82     52.27   58.85     62.22
Standard deviation                 24.44     21.80   29.20     30.17          29.61     29.92   29.18     29.16
    B.C., Bill Clinton; H.C., Hillary Clinton.

popularity during the events of 1998 and how she used the sympathy she gained from
that painful experience to become the foremost campaigner for Democratic candidates
in that year’s elections. Stephen Hess, a senior political analyst at the Brookings
Institution, captures the essence of this puzzling occurrence, “This is especially
fascinating because her current popularity is based on her being a wronged woman,
and that is a very nonfeminist place for her to be. She is building a new reputation by
filling the gap in the campaign that should belong to the president” (Dobbin, 1998).
The first lady took the role that she once mocked, that “. . . of a one-dimensional
spouse standing by her man” (Alvarez, 1998) and then transformed it into an
issue-oriented political persona on the campaign trail.
   Somehow her silence and continued performance as first lady captured the support of
the public. Without a detailed analysis of people’s thinking as their favorable impressions
rose in opinion polls and as she was cheered on at political rallies, we can only speculate
about the roots of her increased popularity. The commentary of journalists following her
activities in the fall of 1998 provides us with hypotheses about this relationship. For
instance, journalists characterized the public as seeing her as a woman wronged who
displayed a stoic dignity in the face of the embarrassment of her husband’s humiliating
public admission that he lied about his involvement with Monica Lewinsky. The public
admired “her guts and spunk” and, in large numbers, they expressed empathy toward the
woman “who has kept private any pain or humiliation she felt from her husband’s
admission of an extramarital relationship.”
   Journalists quoted individuals on the campaign trail as saying, for example: “Hillary is
her own woman”; “She’s marvelous. . . She has brains and charm. And she handles
everything she does with such grace. I think she’d make a good president herself”; “You
have to give her 100% for keeping going when he’s been messing around. . . ”; In a U.S.
News & World Report survey, 52% said they admired her loyalty to the President, while
39% “questioned her judgment.” Fifty-eight percent said she should “stay and try to work
it out,” whereas 21% believed she “should leave Bill Clinton.” Sixty percent thought she
was “a good role model for American women today,” whereas 32% thought she was “not
a good role model.”6 Of course, she had her critics, but given her popularity on the
campaign trail, it was the support and sympathy she was receiving that received and
characterized the media attention.
   The fact that she had worked to achieve a national image as a political and policy figure
earlier in her tenure as first lady allowed her to transform the support for her actions as a
supportive spouse in 1998 into being a political force and a political leader in her own
536                                   THE SOCIAL SCIENCE JOURNAL Vol. 37/No. 4/2000

The relationship between how one views a presidential spouse and one’s impression of the
president or presidential candidate is of interest to presidential scholars and public opinion
researchers, as they seek to understand election outcomes (Tien et al., 1999; Mughan and
Burden, 1995, 1997). This interest is a result of the belief that presidential spouses are a
force in campaigns and administrations. Hillary’s challenge to the traditional stereotype of
the first lady has further stimulated this research agenda. There are two aspects to this line
of inquiry: the nature of the linkage between presidential popularity and popularity for the
first lady; and the impact the presidential spouse has on assessments of the president (or
would-be president), especially during elections and regarding voting decisions emerging
from those assessments.
   An apolitical first lady who stresses the traditional homemaker and ceremonial hostess
role may nevertheless achieve an image independent of that of the president (or lack much
of an image at all.) Barbara Bush, for example, achieved high favorability ratings at the
end of the Bush administration, whereas George Bush was slipping on route to defeat. The
reason for this was that she had not given the public much to compel an unfavorable
response in opinion polls. An activist first lady, on the other hand, can create a response
quite separate from that generated by her husband’s performance. Her first ladyship can
be measured by distinct criteria based on ideas of gender correctness, governmental
position, and personality. Both spouses also can garner similar ratings, but be viewed quite
distinctly. Similar ratings do not necessarily mean that the presidential spouse has no
independent base of support. She may be viewed positively because her husband is viewed
favorably, or because of her own activities and stands, or some mixture of the two. It may
be impossible to separate the effect a spouse’s rating has on the president’s, or vice-versa,
and the extent to which her activities contribute to positive approval for the job he is
   Favorable impressions of Bill and Hillary closely track in Gallup polls (Fig. 3). They
rise and fall together in 1993 and 1994. But Hillary loses favor relative to Bill in August
1995, then climbs back to parity in the October 1997 poll, where she obtains a favorable
rating of 61% and he achieves 62%. The average of three Gallup polls taken in January
1998 —as the Lewinsky scandal began to unfold—shows Hillary gaining greater favor,
while Bill’s favorability starts to shrink. In those January 1998 polls, Hillary had an
average favorability rating of 61% to 56% for Bill. At the end of 1998, 67% said they had
a favorable opinion of Hillary compared with Bill’s 56%. Bill and Hillary’s thermometer
ratings in the ANES are highly correlated. In 1992 the correlation was 0.70, in 1994 it was
0.78, in 1996 it was 0.82, and in 1998 it was 0.86.
   Measuring the quantitative effect of a spouse on campaigns and elections is difficult.
How important are perceptions about the spouse in the decision making process voters go
through in determining how they will cast their ballot? To such a question, the extent to
which someone who feels indifferent toward the candidates could be swung one way
because of an “attractive” spouse must be considered. Or, if one otherwise feels negative
toward a candidate, to what extent might spousal support be strong enough to swing a
vote? The problem with most quantitative analyses of the impact of the spouse on the vote
is that we can only show the strength of the relationship between affect and vote—
controlling for other factors— but we cannot show a causal relationship. The effect of the
Hillary Rodham Clinton as First Lady

Figure 3.   Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Favorability Ratings.
538                                   THE SOCIAL SCIENCE JOURNAL Vol. 37/No. 4/2000

spouse on the campaign trail is much broader in scope, in that she can attract crowds,
generate positive press, help raise money, and appeal to particular groups in a way that
cannot be captured in a quantitative analysis.
   Two quantitative analyses of the influence of spouses on the 1996 presidential election
conclude that there was a spouse effect on the vote in that election. Mughan and Burden
(1997) conclude that Hillary was more influential in shaping the outcome of the presi-
dential election in 1996 than in 1992, even through she was less popular. The 1996 vote
analysis of Tien (1999) showed “that first spouses play an important role in the election.
First spouses, especially Hillary Clinton, had a strong impact on the public popularity of
their spouses, and they also influenced the vote. The results suggest that first spouses are
important players in national politics” (p. 165). The conclusions of each of these studies
are based on the size of regression coefficients of spouses’ feeling thermometer scores on
the vote for their spouse, while controlling for other factors considered to be important
predictors of the vote.
   But one cannot conclude from these analyses that spouses were a deciding factor in the
decision to vote for or against a candidate. We cannot conclude, for example, that if it
were not for Hillary Rodham Clinton a certain percentage of the public would not have
voted for Bill Clinton. It is more likely that for some voters having Hillary in the White
House reinforced their support for Bill Clinton and perhaps made them more certain of
their vote or more likely to turn out to vote, particularly liberal Democrats. At the same
time, it is doubtful that many voters said they would have voted for Bill Clinton, but did
not do so, because of Hillary. Her presence probably strengthened a decision they would
have made anyway on partisan and political grounds.
   To argue that these correlational analyses do not prove a causal relationship is not to
argue that spouses are not forces in contemporary elections. Mughan and Burden (1997)
correctly characterize the importance of spouses when they cast their role as shoring up
support in particular quarters as opposed to having a more diffuse impact. Hillary had an
effect in 1996 because of her popularity in the left wing of the Democratic Party and she
was used to reinforce that support which Bill Clinton had jeopardized by moving to the
political center.7 “The trick is less to have them appeal outside their spouse’s partisan fold
and more to have them shore up loyal support within it” (p. 13). It is their strategic use
within the campaign that makes spouses a force in contemporary presidential elections,
not their independent quantitative effect on the vote.
   In 1998, Hillary was a formidable force in the Democratic campaign strategy of that
midterm election. In that election, she offered to attend fundraisers for House and Senate
Democratic candidates—many of them challengers against incumbents—as part of the
Democratic congressional and senate campaign committees’ efforts. In June and July she
attended six such fundraisers (Alvarez, 1998). After the August debacle regarding Pres-
ident Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Hillary emerged as an energetic and
popular campaigner while the president was unwelcome on the campaign trail. During the
fall campaign she even made a 19-state tour on behalf of Democratic candidates, cut more
than 100 radio and TV spots, and raised millions of dollars for Democratic campaigns.8
EMILY’s List, in conjunction with the coordinated campaign of the Democratic National
Committee, targeted women in key states who tended to vote in presidential elections and
then drop out during midterm elections. Hillary Rodham Clinton sent a letter to those
Hillary Rodham Clinton as First Lady                                                    539

women with the theme “children’s issues are bigger than politics.” She was clearly seen
as one who could connect with these women and stimulate them to turn out to vote.
   Hillary stumped especially hard for Democratic women, particularly embattled senators
Barbara Boxer and Carol Mosely-Braun, in addition to visiting New York on several
occasions to campaign for Representative Charles Schumer’s race against Senator Alfonse
D’Amato. She visited Illinois three times, appeared in a 30-second television ad, and
wrote a personal fundraising letter that brought in $145,000 in the first 10 days (Irish
Times, 1998). Hillary emerged from that election as a potential candidate for national
office herself.

As we have seen, the public’s impression of Hillary Rodham Clinton has varied over the
course of her tenure in the White House. Have certain groups of people been the base of
her support? Have certain groups moved in and out of her support coalition, depending on
her activities and challenges? One would hypothesize that she would be seen in a very
partisan light because of her advocacy of liberal positions on public policy issues.

                             Partisanship and Support
   Figure 4 shows the responses of partisans to inquiries about their impressions of Hillary
Rodham Clinton during her tenure as first lady, according to Gallup Polls. Overall, as the
figure indicates, Democrats were highly approving, while Republicans were strongly
disapproving, with independents consistently taking a middle ground. The level of their
approval rises and falls similarly across groups in response to her efforts and challenges
to her activities.
   In January 1993, Gallup reported 53% of Republicans and 81% of Democrats approved
of Hillary Clinton’s handling of the job of first lady, whereas 64% of independents gave
her positive marks. By April, Republican support had dropped to 39%, whereas Demo-
crats maintained an 83% favorable rating, and independent voters’ impressions had
dropped slightly to 58%, according to the Gallup Poll. As the administration proceeded,
Democrats remained steadfast in their support of her, while typically less than one-third
of Republicans gave her favorable marks. The support of independents—always between
that of the levels indicated by Democrats and Republicans— declined overtime in the first
months of the administration, bounced back, and then drifted downward, so that whereas
over 60% of the independents rated her favorably at the beginning of the administration,
their support declined to 50% in the second year.

                                  Sex and Support
   The gender gap as measured by public support has been quite consistent and strong
through the Clinton years. Women have consistently been more favorably disposed toward
Hillary Rodham Clinton than men. At the beginning of the administration, men and
women were equally supportive, but men’s positive impressions quickly began to decline,
while women maintained their level of support. It may not be surprising to find that
women were more supportive of Hillary than men, but it is important to ask why this
divergence has occurred. If men were stronger believers in traditional roles for women,

Figure 4.   Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Favorable Impressions by Party,
                           Gallup Polls
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Hillary Rodham Clinton as First Lady                                                                                  541

                                   Table 2. Mean Scores by Sex: ANES Studies
    Mean                                                                Year
    score                      1992                      1994                          1996                   1998
                      B.C.a            H.C.       B.C.          H.C.            B.C.          H.C.     B.C.          H.C.
Men                   54.36            53.44     51.56          42.86          54.72          46.69   58.10          57.32
Women                 57.64            57.73     56.87          52.37          62.59          57.41   58.85          62.22
    B.C., Bill Clinton; H.C., Hillary Clinton.

then this greater traditionalism could account for their lower levels of support. Or it may
be that men are more conservative on public policy issues and therefore their greater
negativity toward the first lady stems for her policy stances, not necessarily her involve-
ment in policy per se.
   In January 1993, 69% of women and 63% of men approved of the way Hillary Clinton
was handling her job as first lady, according to the Gallup Poll. In April, 67% of women
and 54% of men had an favorable opinion; in June 60% of women but only 40% of men
said they had a favorable opinion of her—a 9-point drop for women but a 25-point decline
among men during this six-month period. An especially large gap had emerged in the early
months of 1994, as women maintained a quite high level of support, while less than half
of the men were supportive. Men by this time were as likely to have an unfavorable
impression as a favorable one, while women were twice as likely to be favorably
impressed as unfavorably impressed. Both men and women had slightly lower positive
ratings in the first half of 1996. After that period, favorable impressions by both sexes
began to climb slowly. By October 1998, 57% of men and 63% of women expressed a
favorable opinion of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Fig. 5).
   Table 2 shows the average thermometer scores from ANES for men and women in the
four elections of the Clinton era for both Bill and Hillary. Women are more supportive of
both Clintons in each election than men, but men are especially cold toward Hillary in
1994 and 1996. Interestingly, women and men are more supportive of Bill than
Hillary, except in 1998 when women were warmer toward Hillary than they were
toward Bill.

                                          Sex, Partisanship, and Support
   The interaction between sex and party in impressions of the first lady is intriguing (Fig.
6). For example, in the June 1993 Gallup poll, although only 23% of Republican men had
a favorable opinion, 39% of Republican women had a favorable opinion of the first lady.
These figures compared with 60% of Democratic men and 75% of Democratic women. A
large gap also existed between the support of independent men and independent women.
Only 35% of the former, but 60% of the latter, had a favorable opinion in that poll. Early
in the first administration, the first lady seemed to be advantaged by the support she
received from independent women and her disproportionate support from Republican
women relative to Republican men. The gender gap among Republicans was sustained in
the second year of the administration. In April 1994, Gallup attributed the continued
gender gap in favorability ratings of Hillary Rodham Clinton “mostly to a gender gap
among Republicans: 46% of GOP females, compared with 24% of GOP males, have a
favorable view of Hillary Clinton, a gap of 22 points. Among Democrats, however, there

Figure 5.   Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Favorability by Sex, Gallup Polls.
                                                                          THE SOCIAL SCIENCE JOURNAL Vol. 37/No. 4/2000
Hillary Rodham Clinton as First Lady

Figure 6.   Favorability Ratings of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Party and Sex,
                                 Gallup Polls.
544                                   THE SOCIAL SCIENCE JOURNAL Vol. 37/No. 4/2000

is only a six-point gap: 82% of females and 76% of males are favorable toward the first
lady.” These figures suggest a sharp gender gap in support for Hillary Clinton with women
considerably more supportive than men, regardless of party identification. Although
partisanship dampens support for Hillary among some women, it does not totally mitigate
the more favorable response she has obtained from women compared with that of men. It
suggests a gender consciousness at play above and beyond policy support.


Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure as first lady has placed the presidential spouse as a key
player in the White House. Scholars are beginning to think about the impact of her years
as first lady and her legacy on that position. And we can ask the extent to which she has
freed future presidential spouses from the gender constraints that have been placed on that
position. Other questions must be asked, such as: Is a person in this position more likely
to serve as an autonomous individual, in keeping with liberal democratic premises,
because of Hillary’s efforts?
   Hillary Rodham Clinton has not been in control of her destiny as first lady. We have
seen that events outside of her control to a degree at least have had a major impacts on her
relationship with the public, namely the Whitewater investigation and the President’s
sexual scandals. The former made her seem a liability on the administration and the latter
made her an asset. Future presidential spouses can learn from that experience how to use
the opportunities available to them to communicate their goals. One could look to Lady
Bird Johnson and her press secretary Liz Carpenter’s efforts for examples of how to
communicate through the media (Foreman, 1971).
   The most lasting impression one might take away from an overview of public opinion
during Hillary’s years is not to attempt to be an overt policy advisor to the president. This
would be a misreading of her history, as the polls have indicated. A first lady would have
to more sensitively craft her position. Certainly future spouses will hesitate to take on a
formal position as a policy advisor. We can also imagine that, given the increasing
numbers of spouses with professional backgrounds, they will increasingly chafe at the
gender limitations of the position of first lady. More will want to continue to pursue their
independent careers, which will continue to be difficult given potential conflicts of
interest. And running for president has become a family affair in contemporary politics.
Spouses are central players, needed on the campaign trail. They tend to be part of the
election team that puts the man in the White House. To be so much a part of that
organization but not the one that achieves as a result of that effort is unnatural.
   Hillary Rodham Clinton has provided future spouses with both greater leeway for how
they will approach this “job,” and set up hurdles for them. She has loosened some of the
gender constraints but also made them more visible. They cannot be ignored and the extent
to which women have been the base of her support suggests that for the most part women
want those constraints removed. This follows for the changes in their own lives and
Hillary Rodham Clinton as First Lady                                                            545

1.    CBS/NYT Poll, February 9 –11, 1993. Roper Center at University of Connecticut, Public
      Opinion Online, Accession Number 0192356, USCBNYT.021593, R42B.
2.    Gallup Poll, December 28 –29, 1998. Roper Center at University of Connecticut, Public Opinion
      Online, Accession Number 0318806, Question Number 006.
3.    CBS Poll, January 1–3, January 1996. Roper Center at University of Connecticut, Public
      Opinion Online, Accession Number 0257887, Question number 9; CBS Poll, January 15–17,
      January 1996. Roper Center at University of Connecticut, Public Opinion Online, Accession
      Number 0249401, Question number 2.
4.    Most polls in this series as about approval of the “job HRC is doing as first lady,” but an
      occasional poll has asked about HRC’s “handling of her role as first lady.” I have combined
      these two versions together in Fig. 3.
5.    The mean thermometer score in the ANES study for Elizabeth Dole in 1998 was 62.39.
6.    The questions wordings were: “Thinking about Hillary Clinton’s response to the current
      scandals in Washington, do you admire her loyalty to the President (Bill Clinton), or do you
      question her judgment in defending the President?” “Thinking about Bill Clinton’s relationship
      with Monica Lewinsky, which do you think Hillary Clinton should do? Should she—leave Bill
      Clinton or stay and try to work it out?” and “Would you say that Hillary Rodham Clinton is a
      good role model for American women today or is she not a good role model?” The questions
      are from Public Opinion Online, Roper Center, accession numbers 0310098, 0310105, and
7.    Elizabeth Dole, too, was used to solidify the Christian right vote for the Republicans in 1996.
      She apparently had many private meetings with religious groups during the campaign.
8.    In contrast, Hillary only appeared in one Clinton-Gore commercial in the 1996 election.

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