ONE of the most important resources of any American president is his standing with the people. When it is depleted, he finds it exceedingly hard to lead, especially given the opposition he must always confront in our system of separation of powers. How do we know how much of this vital resource of public approval a president has at any given time? For the last quarter century, and increasingly over this span, the answer has been through the public-opinion polls. Hence, any change in what the polls show about a president's popular standing becomes an important datum bearing on his overall capacity to lead.
It isn't surprising that the drop in President Reagan's approval ratings over the past month, since the Iranian arms controversy broke with such fury, has been much discussed - or that the magnitude of the drop is seen as a significant political issue.
Unfortunately for those who like their answers neat and tidy, the polls of the last month give us fairly complex and even contradictory answers to the question of how much Mr. Reagan's standing has been diminished. One regularly asked question - ``Do you approve or disapprove of the way Ronald Reagan is handling his job as president?'' - yields results that seem a model of clarity: The President's approval ratings have dropped 20 percentage points or so from their October highs, a huge proportion by any standard of comparison. Other questions give significantly different readings, however, and we need to look at the total mix.
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