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Clinton Gets Nod on Haiti But Standing Remains Low

By David Lauter
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

Americans generally approve of the negotiated settlement to the crisis in Haiti but remain skeptical about long-term U.S. involvement in that country and unconvinced that any vital national interest is present there, according to the Los Angeles Times Poll.

And while the public is more supportive of President Clinton's handling of Haiti than of his handling of the rest of his job, the sharply divided view of the Haitian situation has had no measurable impact on Clinton's overall standing or on domestic politics generally. Clinton's standing with the public remains low - as low as at any point in his presidency - and while Americans also remain skeptical of his Republican opposition, the GOP appears well positioned to make substantial gains in this fall's mid-term elections.

According to the poll, the public remains opposed to sending U.S. troops to Haiti, fears that the forces will become bogged down there, distrusts the Haitian generals and offers limited support for any long-term effort to "restore democracy" to the troubled Caribbean island. Americans do, however, accept "stopping human rights abuses" as a justification for U.S. intervention in Haiti - a result that underscores how important it is for the administration over the next days and weeks to find ways of reining in the Haitian armed forces.

Overall, Americans approve of the agreement, 67 percent-27 percent, but disapprove of sending troops to Haiti, 53 percent-43 percent. Those who approve of the agreement but not of sending troops to enforce it tend to be women. Republicans and conservatives also are more likely to fall into this category.

Clinton's approval ratings show continued slippage since the last Times Poll, taken in late July. That slippage, which showed up in other polls taken in August and early September, appears unrelated to the Haitian crisis. Asked if Clinton's actions in Haiti made them feel more or less favorable toward the president, 65 percent said the subject had no effect, 16 percent said it made them more favorable, and 16 percent said less favorable.

Nonetheless, only 52 percent of those polled now say they see Clinton as an "effective" president while 46 percent do not. Nine months ago, Clinton had a 65 percent-32 percent edge on that measurement. Only 34 percent said they see Clinton as a "strong and decisive leader" as against 59 percent who do not; 40 percent say Clinton has the "moral authority to serve as commander-in-chief" while 48 percent say he does not; and only 17 percent say they have a good idea of Clinton's goals in foreign affairs, while 74 percent do not.

By 42 percent-52 percent the public disapproves of Clinton's overall handling of his job as president, compared to 45 percent-47 percent in July, and an extraordinarily high 34 percent say they "disapprove strongly," up from 27 percent in July. Clinton receives even worse scores on two specific aspects of his job - the public disapproves of his handling of the economy, 39 percent-52 percent, and disapproves of his handling of foreign affairs, 36 percent-55 percent.

Asked which party they lean toward in this fall's elections, Americans are almost equally divided, with 44 percent favoring the Democrats and 43 percent the Republicans - a result that points towards heavy losses this November from the Democratic congressional majorities.

The poll, supervised by Times Poll director John Brennan, surveyed 1,340 adults nationwide Tuesday and Wednesday. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 points.

Asked if they believe American troops "will be able to finish their job and withdraw from Haiti in a fairly timely fashion," only 32 percent say yes. A majority, 54 percent say they fear American forces will get "bogged down" in Haiti. Americans are not enamored of Clinton's argument that the need to "restore democracy" justifies a U.S. military presence in Haiti. Only 45 percent of those polled say they think that was a good argument, while 47 percent said it was not good. Similarly, those polled reject, by 53 percent-40 percent, the argument that the need to maintain U.S. credibility justified intervention.

By contrast, Americans do support the argument that the military presence is needed to "keep a flood of Haitian refugees from seeking to enter the United States." By 57 percent-39 percent those polled say that was a good argument.