Voters want president to succeed, pollster says ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

July 06, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Stan Greenberg, President Clinton's pollster, was talking the other day about the ups and downs of his boss' ratings as gauged in the various public-opinion surveys. Some show Clinton climbing slightly and others have him running like a dry creek. While he seems to have gotten a temporary bump from the raid on Iraq in retaliation for the alleged plot to assassinate former President George Bush, his numbers on his economic performance have plateaued or fallen.

Greenberg reported that in his own polling, after a few rough weeks, the president had "steadied himself a couple of weeks ago" and had "stabilized" his favorability at about 40 percent of those surveyed. Since then, Greenberg said, Clinton had started moving up, with boosts from the military strikes against Iraq and his salesmanship on the economic plan. But he conceded that support for foreign policy gambits seldom was long-lasting, or "George Bush would still be president today."

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 57 percent of those surveyed still disapproved of Clinton's handling of the economy, to only 38 percent who approved. And the New York Times/CBS News poll found his rating on the economy went up only 2 percentage points after the raid, from a weak 34 percent approval to 36 percent.

Clinton's pollster nevertheless seemed to take heart in what he identified as a yearning on the part of American voters for leaders in whom they can trust. If Clinton manages to enact his economic and health-care reforms, he suggested, everything else will fall away. "People want Clinton to succeed," he told a Center for National Policy audience, "they need him to succeed."

Although Clinton already has reneged on a number of specific campaign promises on various other issues, Greenberg said, if he achieves his major objectives of debt reduction, job creation and national health insurance, voters will judge him a success because what they want above all is economic change for the better.

From a historical perspective, he said, both the old Democratic and Republican parties with their traditional economic models have fueled the lack of trust in elected officials that is so dominant today -- the Democrats advocating bottom-up policies to produce economic growth and the Republicans advancing top-down policies, each of which eventually was rejected at the polls.

Greenberg cited the 30-year-plus era from William McKinley to Calvin Coolidge as the GOP heyday of "business-led prosperity" and roughly the same period from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson as the Democratic model of growth through governmental stimulation and "investing in people." In each case, he said, voters became disenchanted and finally turned away.

In the 1980s, Greenberg said, the Republicans sought to revive the concept of trickle-down, business-led prosperity through the policies of Ronald Reagan, but after 12 years of widening deficits and the recession that lingered on Bush's watch, it was rejected again. What Clinton as a "new kind of Democrat" is trying to do, he suggested, is offer a "middle vision" in an era in which voters have lost faith in both the old Democratic and Republican models.

Pulling it off, however, has proved to be difficult for Clinton, with the Republicans led by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole effectively pounding at him as nothing more than an old-fashioned tax-and-spend Democrat. Instead of getting credit for being candid about the need for new taxes after a campaign in which he proposed a middle-income tax cut, Clinton has been an easy target for the longtime Republican assault on tax-and-spend.

It may well be, as Greenberg says, that after their disillusionment with Bush as the heir to the Reagan Revolution, voters want Clinton to succeed. But if he is to do so, by Greenberg's own analysis, he must arrest their growing perception of him as a traditional Democrat after all.

Right now, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, it's touch and go: 50 percent see him as a new kind of Democrat "who will be careful with the public's money," but 45 percent identify him as that "old-style tax-and-spend Democrat" that Dole has been warning them about.

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