It's the Prosperity Gap, Stupid

October 18, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The political mystery of the moment is why President Clinton's approval ratings are so bad when the economy is looking so good.

Pollsters tell us that, judging by lower unemployment statistics and decent overall growth rates, the president's rating should be in the 60 percent range. In fact, he is barely getting into the low 40s in job-approval questions in national surveys.

The conventional wisdom is that there is always a lag time before the public believes that a recession is over and voters grudgingly concede that maybe someone in Washington is doing something right. That lag is generally said to be about a year. In the fall of 1982, for instance, President Reagan's approval ratings had just begun to climb above where Mr. Clinton is now, as the public began to believe economists' assurances that the recession of 1980 had ended a year before.

The current recovery, though, has been going on longer than that and, it is said now, people just won't give President Clinton any credit. So pollsters, and numberless pundits too, have invented a phrase -- ''character gap'' -- to explain statistics that seem to be jumping through the wrong hoops. The idea is that this president's approval numbers are 20 percent below what they should be because people don't like him or don't really trust him. Whitewater, womanizing, weaving around the truth -- these, we are told, are the reasons Mr. Clinton stays on the bottom looking up.

But traveling the country a bit during this midterm campaign, I don't get the impression that Bill Clinton is as unpopular as we are being told he is. Certainly there are a lot of people who can't stand him or, often, say they can't stand the two of them, Bill and Hillary. The Clinton-haters, however, seem to represent only a sizable minority. A majority, it seems, hate Washington; as for the president himself, what I hear was summed up by a cityside reporter in Chicago: ''At worst, Mr. Clinton seems to be in over his head, but he's trying to do something -- people respect that; they're still willing to give the kid a chance.''

Why the low approval then, the skepticism about the economy? Perhaps it is because the recovery is so hollow. The good economic news is not getting into the pockets of most of the people most of the time. Checking the Commerce Department's monthly index of disposable personal income per capita, you discover that when Mr. Clinton took office almost two years ago, that index was (in constant 1987 dollars) at $14,965 for every man, woman and child in the United States. Last month the figure in the same constant dollars was $14,684. Income was down $300 a year.

Individual perceptions of national recovery depend on whether or not an individual is recovering -- and most Americans may not be at all.

These numbers are hardly engraved in stone (or gold). Disposable-income statistics have fluctuated a good deal during the past two years -- the low being $14,201 only a month after the $14,965 peak. (The actual number now is almost $19,000, which translates into the $14,684 in constant 1987 dollars.)

The political question is this: What does it profit a capita if he or she reads that Chrysler had record profits (up 54 percent) this last quarter, and the real Dow Jones industrial average jumped 55.51 points last Tuesday because of such profit reports (Motorola and Pepsico joined Chrysler as quarterly winners), if the capita's family has less money to spend? Again?

jTC President Clinton is out campaigning now, and with some tenuous foreign successes in Haiti and Kuwait, he obviously feels better and probably will look better to more people in the next few weeks. He probably hates Washington, too. But unless personal earnings, the middle of the economy, begin to reflect profits and other rising indicators at the top, this hard-working president and all of Washington may stay in deep trouble with the hard-working people of the rest of the country. People can't eat statistics.

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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