Clinton's summit success isn't reflected in the polls ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

July 14, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The first post-summit opinion polling confirms what the political wise guys, except perhaps those in the White House, suspected all along: that President Clinton's much advertised "success" at the summit in Tokyo did nothing to improve his political position at home.

The CNN/USA Today survey immediately after the G-7 meeting found Clinton's performance in office winning approval from 45 percent of the voters, disapproval from 48 percent. Those figures are statistically identical to the 46 percent-47 percent ratio in the previous poll June 30.

Similarly, the new poll found the president's handling of the economy winning approval from only 34 percent, disapproval from 60 percent -- again unchanged from the 35 percent-59 percent figures before the Tokyo meeting.

Taken together, these figures suggest the voters were not impressed by all the hoopla about what Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen called the "jobs summit" and the prediction by U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor that the tentative tariff agreement there would produce 1.4 million new jobs in the United States in the next 10 years.

For political professionals, it was further confirmation of a political reality: Except in times of direct peril to the nation -- like those that occurred so frequently during the Cold War -- voters don't pay much attention to foreign policy matters.

Perhaps what is most intriguing about the poll results, however, is the evidence of a kind of sophistication in the electorate that politicians should heed more often. The G-7 summit in Tokyo was, by normal standards, a world event of impressive dimensions. All the television networks sent their anchors there and devoted heavy attention to the meetings. So did the leading newspapers. And Clinton himself, as well as his advisers, kept insisting something significant was happening in the meetings.

But, if the poll findings are to be credited, the voters obviously didn't fall for it. The message was that they intend to judge the new president's performance on the issues that are in the forefront of their own concern -- principally the condition of the economy -- and they are not going to be distracted by international circuses. What that means, as the White House already is well aware, is that the stakes in the House-Senate conference on the economic plan and its final passage are politically enormous.

None of this suggests, however, that the president may not have realized some ancillary political gain from his trip to Tokyo. As a newcomer to the world of international affairs, the former governor of Arkansas needed to demonstrate he was comfortable in that milieu. And that was particularly important in this case because Clinton's one previous foray into a foreign policy issue of some importance was a clear failure -- when he urged the European allies to get behind him in acting "quickly and decisively" in Bosnia.

Moreover, the president needed and gained another week or 10 days in which his administration has been largely free of gaffes or controversies and projecting an image of routine competence. That has been the case for almost a month now -- since the Lani Guinier episode -- and may be responsible for the fact that Clinton's position in the polls appears to have leveled off and bottomed out.

Clinton is facing some difficult times in the next few weeks. Within a few days he will be obliged to make a decision on the question of homosexuals in the military, and there is no approach that isn't likely to evoke a backlash either from gays or cultural conservatives. In this case, the best the new president can hope is that he can put the issue behind him quickly and permanently.

The outcome of the negotiations over the economic plan is far more important. If a solution can be found that holds 218 Democrats in the House and 51 in the Senate, the president will be in a position to move on to other issues -- health-care reform most notably -- with the prospect of an enhanced position in the polls.

The voters understand that there are serious decisions to be made on taxes and spending, just as they understood that the economic summit in Tokyo was a bunch of people sitting around a table that had little to do with their lives.

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