US: upbeat mood despite setbacks

Despite the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran and the economic slide into recession at home, Americans haven't abandoned their hope and higher expectations, a wide array of public opinion pollsters say.

"We haven't lost the aspiration for world leadership, or the desire to do well," reports Everett Ladd, University of Connecticut poll analyst.

In part, the anguish felt over the continuing Iranian impasse is fed by the feeling "hey, we're an important society," Mr. Ladd says. "Americans still haven't accepted the status of losers."

President Carter appears to be gaining short-term backing from the public for the hostage-freeing attempt. Two-thirds of the public endorsed the rescue try, according to a CBS News poll after the mission. But the CBS poll showed no gain in Mr. Carter's job approval rating for the try.

Some opinion analysts see the prospect of another job approval slide for the President, similar to the erosion of confidence Mr. Carter endured in the spring of last year. That was followed by his retreat to Camp David in July, and a speech blaming national malaise for the crisis of confidence in his leadership.

The President announced new energy policy initiatives, and fired "disloyal" Cabinet members.

"There's a potential for another deep slide for Carter this summer," says Albert H. Cantril, president of the National Council on Public Polls. But Mr. Cantril sees no way Mr. Carter's 2-to-1 delegate edge over Sen. Edward M. Kennedy can be overcome, with only two-fifths of convention delegates to be chosen. "The arithmetic will be with Carter at the convention, even though public opinion may not be," Mr. Cantril says.

Pollster Burns Roper says the public feels torn by the Iranian events. "People are glad he did something, but they wonder whether it was the right thing, and they're perplexed by its failure," Mr. Roper says.

"If you kept a barometer on the state of the national spirit, all the indicators would be pointing down," says David Gergen, managing editor of Public Opinion magazine.

"The consumer confidence index has taken a deep plunge. The Yankelovich survey, asking whether the country is in deep and serious trouble, has shown a sharp upturn since January. There's been a downward slide in Carter's popularity and his handling of Iran. People are asking again, 'Is Carter in over his head? Can anyone handle inflation? Are events in the saddle?'

"the shock of the hostage mission failure must be seen in that setting. The long-term effect may be to deepen the feeling -- evident since the mid-1960s -- that our government's leadership can't cope."

Paul Maslin, a Carter team pollster, says the public is not as pessimistic as it was last spring, when confidence in Mr. Carter ebbed. Still, Mr. Maslin says , "we're in a tense, tense period. People are starting to link together dramatic foreign events and economic issues that they viewed before in isolation. They are associating their frustrations with Washington. It's a paradox: In an age where people are cynical about political leaders, they are looking to them more for answers."

"The normal predisposition of the American people is optimistic," says Tully Plesser, pollster for the Republican National Committee. "But at the moment they can see no horizon."

The current low in public spirits, like the down mood of a year ago, has a largely economic cause, Mr. Plesser says. "The pessimism the President's pollster found was basically economic pessimism," Mr. Plesser says. "We saw the current downturn beginning last November. Now is the bleakest point. There is as yet no indication the public senses how much time must pass before an economic correction can take place."

Mr. Plesser does not foresee much further decline ahead in Mr. Carter's confidence ratings because of the Iran mission failure. "Mr. Carter's good intentions haven't been challenged by the public," Mr. Plesser says. "But the public's questions about his qualifications and competence have reached a constant level."

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