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Economic Anxiety, Whitewater Cast a Pall on Americans' Mood

DAFFODILS are blooming, auto sales are zooming, corporate profits are booming - yet a mid-winterish gloom has settled over Americans.

``The mood of America continues to be quite sour,'' says pollster Andrew Kohut.

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Republican analyst Richard Wirthlin reports that pessimism has recently deepened across the United States. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed say the country is on the wrong track.

Why this dichotomy of spring sunshine and dark clouds? Mr. Kohut suggests that one factor is Whitewater. The continuing investigation of President and Mrs. Clinton, with a rain of stories on TV and in the newspapers, ``is putting a damper on the gross national spirit,'' he concludes.

Analysts say there is more involved in the current pessimism than just Whitewater, however. Although economists tell us the recession is over, people are still fretful about their economic futures. Former Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York, a likely presidential candidate in 1996, says people are frustrated because the nation has spent $4 trillion since 1960 fighting poverty, and ``poverty is winning.''

New York City and California serve as major examples for what is happening to the public weal, analysts say. The Marist Institute for Public Opinion recently surveyed over 1,000 residents in New York City's five boroughs. It found that more than two-thirds of the respondents were ``always'' or ``sometimes'' worried that their families will not be able to pay their bills.

Nearly 20 percent of New Yorkers said they have trouble affording enough food. More than a third have difficulty affording clothing. Nearly half have trouble paying for housing. More than half worry that they could lose their jobs in the coming year. In summary, the study concluded the city is struggling, though still hopeful:

``The picture of New York City that emerges ... is of people experiencing serious hardships. But it is also a city whose residents have not given up on its future.''

California pollster Mervin Field reports that a combination of problems, including natural disasters, have ``cast a distinct pall'' over the way residents view the Golden State.

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A decade ago, 78 percent of Californians said their state was ``one of the best places to live.'' Today, only 41 percent feel that way. In fact, most of its residents now say California is no better than the rest of the country.

Donald Kellerman, senior fellow at the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, puts all of this together with Whitewater to explain why Americans are feeling somewhat grim.

Mr. Kellerman cites a Times Mirror poll showing that three out of four Americans think that Whitewater is disrupting work in Washington on major issues, like crime, the economy, and health-care reform. Yet Times Mirror finds that only 20 percent believe that Mr. and Mrs. Clinton actually did something seriously wrong in the Whitewater case.

So the public concludes that the major issues they care about are being delayed by a problem that few think is serious.

It is for that reason, Kellerman says, that a record number (55 percent) of the American public complains that the media are overplaying Whitewater. Even in the days of Watergate and Iran-contra, public dismay with the press wasn't this high.

Garrison Keillor, the writer and public-radio humorist, says he keeps waiting for the other Whitewater shoe to drop - for the press finally to prove that President Clinton did something illegal. As he put it in a speech at the National Press Club: ``If the elephant doesn't come out pretty soon, I'd like to know why.''

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