SOMEHOW as I look at this president who, even his own pollster concedes, has yet to "pass the threshold of public approval," I think of how President Reagan was faring at a similar, very early moment in his administration.
Mr. Reagan was struggling, too, but in a far different way. He was on his back in the hospital, wounded by an assassin's bullet. We later learned that his "making it" had been touch and go.
Reagan's first remark, we are told, was to ask if the surgeon operating on him had been a Republican. Soon, when asked how he felt, he delivered another quip: "All in all," he said, "I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
Here the public perception of a spunky president was born. People like a president who can deal with adversity with humor. Up to that point Reagan had been a question mark in the minds of most Americans, even those who had voted for him. But from then on he had much of the public rooting for him. Thus, he could lead. And he was later reelected, overwhelming his opponent, Walter Mondale.
President Clinton is beset with adversity, too, although of a different kind, as he ends his first six months in office. But much of it is of his own making. Columnist David Broder summarizes the problem:
"The list of people and causes Clinton has been forced to abandon is depressingly long. Among many others, there are Zoe Baird, Lani Guinier, the economic stimulus package, the broad-based energy tax, the reversal of the Haitian refugees' exclusion, the military rescue effort in Bosnia. And now you can add ending the ban on gays in the military."
Only now, a few days ago, did Mr. Clinton make what many regard as a belated decision to provide air cover in Bosnia to protect United Nations peacekeepers there - though only if asked.
Clinton's pollster, Stanley Greenberg, told us over breakfast recently that he had seen some signs of revived public support for the president. He conceded that the overall ratings were low and the negatives high. But he attributed Clinton's problems to the extremely difficult issues he was tackling.
Mr. Greenberg has a good point. Clinton has, indeed, made some gaffes. But what hurts him so much in the polls is telling people that to chop the deficit effectively and to get some needed jobs done, there must be some sacrifices - in the way of taxes. In this approach he certainly isn't taking the popular way. But he is being responsible.
Clinton's rough treatment from politicians and the media may not approach Reagan's physical ordeal. But Clinton has been hammered hard, very hard. And while his response has not brought forth any memorable quips, this much must be said: He has dealt with this criticism with good humor and grace. There was only one little outburst of ire in an answer to a reporter. But for the most part the president has never let this battering take away his poise.
Clinton must be given high grades for his intelligent approach to the Presidency. Unlike Reagan, this president digs deeply into the issues and makes it clear in his public utterances that he fully understands them. Clinton knows every detail, every nuance. So does Hillary Rodham Clinton in whatever she is dealing with. This intellectual quality has not always been so obvious among the inhabitants of the White House.
This is not a lazy president. He and the first lady quite obviously are working night and day to get their job done and get it done right. One might ask if any grade other than an "A" be handed out to them?
Having said all that it must be added that after a half year in office, Clinton is not being widely perceived as being truly presidential. That kind of public approval could come quite quickly now - with a few notable triumphs, particularly if there should be a decided upturn in the economy as a result of the economic package Clinton finally signs.
To too many people the president still looks like he isn't quite up to the job. Some feel he is too willing to compromise on matters of principle. Indeed, some think he really doesn't have a hard core of things he really believes in.