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A Second Look At Clinton's Polls

AS Bill Clinton and his administration have settled into office, the American public has begun to make judgments regarding them. These views are decidedly mixed.

Most of the recent press commentary asserts that the public has rallied behind the president's economic plan and now gives broad support to his leadership. Rummaging around in the polls, I can see where this interpretation comes from. Still, it is a gross misreading of the total body of available data.

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Many Americans became convinced during the campaign that the economy is in real trouble and that the government's huge annual deficits are at or close to the core of the problem. Many saw the deficit as symptomatic of a government out of control, unable and perhaps unwilling to act responsibly. They called loudly for corrective action, although they split three ways on the matter of which candidate was most likely to provide it.

When President Clinton delivered his economic message to Congress last month, a solid majority saw it as a sincere attempt to respond to their call to action. In this context they expressed approval. In a CBS News poll on Feb. 20-21, 59 percent said they approved of Clinton's economic plan; only 26 percent declared opposition. The first reading of a majority of the public was that Clinton's proposals would cause their taxes to rise - but only a little - and they declared themselves ready to make a sacrif ice.

Genuinely wanting to see the country pull together, many people weren't in the mood for business-as-usual partisanship, and they faulted the Republican response as too negative and partisan. "Give the guy a chance" seems to have been the widespread reaction.

This is the positive side of things for Clinton, and it is substantial. But now the negative side of the public's judgments looks at least as large. It is ludicrous to suggest that Clinton has taken the populace by storm.

At first glance his approval scores may not appear sub-par. A Gallup poll of Feb. 12-14 recorded 51 percent approving of the job he was doing, 34 percent disapproving, with the remaining 15 percent not expressing an opinion. Clinton got a bit of a rise following his Feb. 17 economic address: In the Gallup poll of Feb. 26-28, 59 percent said they approved of his performance while 29 percent disapproved. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey of March 5-9 got much the same response - 57 percent approving, 26 percent disapproving.

It is necessary to compare these assessments to those given other presidents at the same stage. Clinton's approval ratings so far are the lowest of any president going back to Harry Truman. According to Gallup, John Kennedy's standing was 72 to 6 in March 1961 (percentages approving and disapproving respectively). Richard Nixon's was 65 to 9 in March 1969. Gallup found 70 percent approving, 9 percent disapproving Jimmy Carter's performance as president in March 1977. In March 1981, before the assassinati on attempt that saw his approval scores rise in sympathy, Ronald Reagan's figures were 60 percent approve, 24 percent disapprove. George Bush's standing was 63 percent approve, 13 percent disapprove in early March 1989.

The Harris poll uses a somewhat different measure. It asks its respondents to rate the president's performance as "excellent, good, only fair, or poor" and calls the first two responses positive, the latter two negative. According to Humphrey Taylor, who directs the Harris organization, Clinton's standing was 52 percent positive, 44 percent negative, in their survey of March 4-10.

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On Clinton's economic proposals, the CBS News survey of Feb. 20-21 found 45 percent saying that the proposals relied too much on tax increases, compared to just 3 percent citing too much reliance on spending cuts, with 41 percent calling the balance about right. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal and the Yankelovich Partners surveys have also recorded large pluralities faulting Clinton's approach for too much reliance on tax hikes as opposed to spending restraint.

Americans want Clinton to succeed. But two months into his term, they have big doubts about his leadership and his policies.

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