WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has already learned tha the so-called honeymoon period a new White House occupant is supposed to enjoy with Congress can be mighty short. The effective filibuster that the Senate Republicans threw up against his economic stimulus package just before the Easter recess taught him that.
It was not all that surprising that the GOP senators would end the honeymoon after the way the bridegroom, having talked in his State of the Union speech of a partnership to end congressional gridlock, tried to jam his jobs proposals down their throats.
More unexpected are the polls showing that after Clinton's first three months in office, voters give him the lowest approval rating of any president since the measurement was taken for that period, 48 years ago with President Harry S Truman. Then, Americans jolted by the death in wartime of President Franklin D. Roosevelt rallied around the little-known Missourian to the tune of 82 percent approval, still the highest for any president at the same stage in office.
After three months in the presidency, Clinton, according to two Princeton Survey Research polls, has only 49 percent approval of those surveyed. Also, his 36 percent disapproval rating in one of the polls, for Newsweek, sets the low-water mark for beginning presidents, worse than the 29 percent disapproval of President Gerald R. Ford in 1974 after he pardoned Richard M. Nixon. Ford's approval rating then was 52 percent.
In the glow of an elaborately staged Inaugural Week, Clinton was being painted as another John F. Kennedy, who had the second-highest rating of presidents three months into the job, with 78 percent. But that glow only temporarily blurred the fact that Clinton had won office by no more than a plurality of 43 percent in a three-way race.
The dominant force in the 1992 election outcome was not Bill Clinton the personality but rather the electorate's demand for change from the presidency of George Bush, seen not only in the vote for Clinton but also in the 19 percent chipped off by independent candidate Ross Perot.
Even before Clinton took office, signals were sent out to voters that the new president was going to ask for sacrifice. They were confirmed in his State of the Union speech, in which he warned that "we must now break the habits of both political parties and say there can be no more something for nothing."
What's more, voters soon learned that Clinton's campaign rhetoric about tax cuts for the beleaguered middle class was only that, and that the middle class as well as the well-off were going to be asked to ante up to pay for the deficit reduction and economic "investment" policies he intended to install.
While Clinton was moving forcefully to effect change, he was putting a price tag on it that voters hadn't expected. And some of the change was not what many voters had bargained for, most notably his controversial open door to gays in the military that had the Pentagon brass in near-revolt.
The new president's well-orchestrated public-relations campaign in support of his economic package won widespread approval in the polls, demonstrating his political skills as a salesman. But they obviously have not dispelled the public skepticism and even cynicism toward government fed by Bush's long inattention to the recession and nurtured by Perot's 1992 campaign against establishment politics.
One price that Clinton may be paying for all the early talk about a first 100 days that would emulate FDR's 1933 rush of initiatives is public impatience at the pace of organization and achievement in the young Clinton administration. His long search for an attorney general and his failure to fill key second-level positions in the major departments and agencies have conveyed a damaging sense of disarray.
All this can be overcome by breaking the Senate impasse on the economic stimulus package and by success in constructing and winning approval of the health-care reform that Clinton has made a centerpiece of his agenda for change. Both are big orders, but voters apparently are looking for results on Clinton's promises rather than for charm, and it is going to take results to get him off rock-bottom as a new president.