Pundits blame Clinton, but polls see otherwise ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- Here inside the Beltway, the politicians and pundits are wringing their hands and wailing about all the things that are wrong with President Clinton's economic program. But a new opinion poll suggests it is going gangbusters with the electorate.

And that finding, in turn, suggests that the voters' complaint last year that the establishment in Washington is out of touch with the country is still valid today.

The survey conducted for the Washington Post and ABC News found 59 percent of voters approve of the Clinton plan compared with 31 percent who disapprove and a similar 2-to-1 majority who believe the plan will help rather than hurt the economy. The most interesting finding is that 61 percent say Clinton is "a new-style Democrat who will be careful with the public's money" while 35 percent say he's "an old-style tax-and-spend Democrat."

That image is just the one Clinton tried to project in his campaign as a "different kind of Democrat" last year, so the finding suggests he has been successful in maintaining that perception at least up to this point -- despite the Republican complaints that the economic program is a throwback to Walter Mondale if not George McGovern.

Not all of the poll results were boffo for the new president. His overall approval rating on his handling of his job was put at 60 percent, lower than the 76 percent for George Bush and the 68 percent for Ronald Reagan at the same early point in their administrations.

This is probably not surprising, however. For one thing, the radical economic program Clinton has advanced has inevitably caused some polarization. For another, Clinton clearly has evoked a backlash with some other positions he has taken, most notably his support for ending the prohibition against homosexuals in the armed forces.

One of the lessons that can be drawn from the survey is that Clinton's continuing and essentially nonstop campaigning for his economic program has paid dividends with the electorate. The poll even found a 57 percent majority who believe the plan will cut the deficit, compared with 38 percent who believe the plan will increase the deficit. That represents a major leap of faith, considering the fiscal history of the last generation.

Taken alone, the poll findings don't necessarily mean that Clinton is certain to be successful in promulgating his program. For one thing, there is a serious question about how long he can maintain the dizzy pace of personal campaigning without its becoming stale and redundant. Americans want presidential leadership but not necessarily the constant pressure of a sales job. That, in turn, means extra pressure on the White House to get the program up for a vote as quickly as possible.

The more fundamental question is how the popular opinion will translate, if at all, with the Congress and particularly the Republican minority Clinton is now wooing directly. Senators and representatives aren't supposed to simply vote the results of opinion polls, but House members are wary about ignoring them completely when there is always another election coming.

The single greatest advantage Clinton enjoys is the dichotomy in Republican thinking that is becoming clearer every day. Some of the hard-line supply-siders in the House, led by Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, are following a policy of confrontational opposition because they remain convinced that lower taxes will allow the country to grow out of its economic problems.

But there are others, particularly in the Senate, who are much more fixed on cutting the deficit. And this group includes Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, whose attitude toward the Clinton initiative has been remarkably restrained so far.

In both parties, the key constituency is the voters who supported independent Ross Perot last year. The poll found them, by a margin of 41 percent to 16 percent, saying that Clinton had done a better job than they expected. But a full three-fourths of the Perotistas also said they didn't think the spending cuts in the Clinton plan go far enough.

At the moment, however, Clinton has reason to be encouraged. The message, though tentative, is that the voters have not forgotten why they decided to make a fundamental change that many of the politicians and pundits have not yet accepted.

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