Bill Clinton's Comfort and Joy

December 18, 1993

Bill Clinton got what he considers an early Christmas present this week. A "Battleground '94" poll, conducted and analyzed by a Democratic and a Republican pollster, showed the president with a 57-36 approval/disapproval rating. That is the highest it has been since January. And a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, also the product of a bi-partisan professional team, found his approval/disapproval rating was 56-33, the highest this poll has registered for the president since March.

The American people are responding to the fact the president and the Democratic House and Senate enacted a number of high-visibility bills in the just-concluded congressional session, thus setting the stage for more action next year. Also, more people seem to like Mr. Clinton, we sense.

But this gift may not be as much a cause for comfort and joy on the president's part as the pretty wrapping suggests. For example, the same pool of respondents who told Battleground they approve of the president's handling of his job also said, by 54-31 percent, the nation was on the "wrong track" and not "going in the right direction." Asked if the president deserves re-election, the response was 37 percent "yes" and 37 percent "no."

Similarly, the Journal/NBC poll found only 42 percent of its respondents said they would "probably" or "definitely" vote for President Clinton in 1996. That is about the size of his vote in 1992. It was enough because Ross Perot got 20 percent of the vote. Mr. Perot may or may not be around in 1996 to allow a candidate to win the presidency with a vote in the 40s. The pollsters give mixed signals on that. The Battleground poll showed 27 percent who "would consider voting for Ross Perot." The Journal/NBC poll found only 7 percent "probably" would and 6 percent "definitely" would.

The Battleground poll asked people if they thought Bill Clinton was, as advertised, a "new kind of Democrat" and the Democratic Party "changing." Fifty-five percent said yes to the first question and 67 percent said yes to the second. That's glad tidings. But his party still has a lower favorable rating and higher unfavorable rating than the Republicans.

The economy seems to be improving. The president and his party are talking tough on crime. The public likes this. But the public is fickle. It is never what the public thinks at Christmas that counts for a president, it is what it thinks every fourth first Tuesday in November. Being popular can help a president get things done, but if he doesn't get things done over the next three years, this 1993 Christmas present will have meant nothing.

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