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Clinton Moves Plan Through Congress, But Slips in Polls

REMEMBER gridlock? That exasperating inability of the White House and Congress to set aside powerplay and take action?

The traffic reports have changed. For better or worse, President Clinton has got the wheels of government turning again.

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The blueprint containing the vast majority of his economic program passed the Senate last week as unscathed as it passed the House the week before.

The remainder of the package - $16 billion in short-term stimulus spending - is hung up in the Senate through the weekend. However, few doubt that the Democratic majority can push it through this week.

But gridlock is giving way at a time when surveys show public skepticism of the federal government at all-time highs, so Mr. Clinton's venture into reasserting government's role is risky.

"This may be big government's last hurrah if he's not sucessful," says Karlyn Bowman, editor of American Enterprise magazine and a public-opinon expert.

"I absolutely agree," says Samuel Popkin, a pollster for the Clinton campaign and a University of California at San Diego professor. "He wants to use the government and it's very risky."

Clinton has a bare majority of popular support for his economic package. A recent Yankelovich Partners survey gave it 52 percent, which is the average of recent polls.

But that marks about a 10 percentage point drop from a month ago.

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The perception that the plan relies too much on raising taxes and not enough on cutting spending has been growing. So is the number of people who believe the plan will have significant effect on them.

Clinton has done a better job so far at moving his program through Congress than at building popular support. His job-approval rating is running between 50 and 55 percent.

This is lower than recent presidents at the same point in their first terms. Jimmy Carter received a positive job-approval rating from 70 percent of the public, Ronald Reagan 63 percent, and George Bush 60 percent.

More striking is Clinton's high disapproval rating. Between 30 and 34 percent of the electorate rates him negatively. Mr. Reagan had about 18 percent negative ratings during his first March in office.

The negative views of Clinton seemed to harden after the Zoe Baird and domestic help and gays-in-the-military controversies of his first weeks in office, says Ms. Bowman.

But it is not personal, says Dr. Popkin. The trend since Watergate has been toward shorter honeymoons for new presidents and greater impatience with government.

Americans remain pessimistic about the economy, especially their own financial prospects and their communities. "Most Americans still feel they're in a recession," says Bowman. This may help push Clinton's program through its many remaining hurdles by sustaining a sense of urgency and need.

For example, when Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy announced Friday that the number of people receiving food stamps had reached a record high, he used the new figures to argue that "to create jobs, Congress must pass President Clinton's new economic stimulus package."

Before long, the economy will have to show progress for Clinton to hold the confidence of the public and the body politic.

"He has convinced people that he's a fair balancer and he's trying to make things work," says Popkin.

But in the end, he adds, "It has to work."

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