ONE of the most important resources of any American president is his standing with the people. When it is depleted, he finds it exceedingly hard to lead, especially given the opposition he must always confront in our system of separation of powers. How do we know how much of this vital resource of public approval a president has at any given time? For the last quarter century, and increasingly over this span, the answer has been through the public-opinion polls. Hence, any change in what the polls show about a president's popular standing becomes an important datum bearing on his overall capacity to lead.
It isn't surprising that the drop in President Reagan's approval ratings over the past month, since the Iranian arms controversy broke with such fury, has been much discussed - or that the magnitude of the drop is seen as a significant political issue.
Unfortunately for those who like their answers neat and tidy, the polls of the last month give us fairly complex and even contradictory answers to the question of how much Mr. Reagan's standing has been diminished. One regularly asked question - ``Do you approve or disapprove of the way Ronald Reagan is handling his job as president?'' - yields results that seem a model of clarity: The President's approval ratings have dropped 20 percentage points or so from their October highs, a huge proportion by any standard of comparison. Other questions give significantly different readings, however, and we need to look at the total mix.
The survey just taken (Dec. 9-11) for U.S. News & World Report and the Cable News Network included the standard overall approval question cited above, and it got answers in line with what other respected national polls are showing. Forty-six percent of those interviewed said they approved Reagan's performance - down from the 68 percent and 66 percent approving in the U.S. News/CNN polls of Oct. 15-16 (which followed the Iceland summit) and Oct. 21-23. Even here the story is more complicated than what the drop of 20 points in a month and a half suggests by itself. The current approval rating of 46 percent is 12 points under the level the poll found in August of this year, and only 7 or 8 points below what Gallup was recording in the first six months of 1984 - when the prevailing view had Reagan striding across the American political scene like a colossus. Reagan's current ratings are not out of line with those of his first term.
Other questions suggest that even the October and December drop may not be as great overall as what the standard approval/disapproval question alone indicates. For example, surveys show that the proportion of Americans now saying they like Reagan personally (about 75 percent) is down only slightly (5 points or so) from what it was in the summer and early fall. Similarly, the proportion saying they support ``most of his policies'' has declined but modestly. The new U.S. News/CNN survey asked respondents to rank Reagan in comparison with other Presidents since the New Deal, Roosevelt through Carter: 34 percent called Reagan the very best or better than average; 41 percent as about average; and just 22 percent as worse than average, or the very worst.
The only previous national asking of this question I have found was by Louis Harris & Associates way back in February 1982, when 34 percent ranked Reagan above average, 35 percent as average, and 29 percent as below par. This was too early in Reagan's presidency to permit meaningful comparison. But Connecticut polls conducted by the University of Connecticut's Institute for Social Inquiry in September 1985, July 1986, and December 1986 show only a slight shift on this comparison measure: from the 39 percent rating Reagan above average, and 19 percent below average in the September 1985 Connpoll, to 37 and 19 percent, respectively, in the December 1986 survey.
Key to an understanding of the somewhat conflicting mix of public evaluations of Reagan's presidency is the fact that a great many people are of mixed minds over the seriousness of the Iranian disclosures. One group is outraged, another thinks the controversy has been blown out of proportion. But people in a huge middle group are being tugged in opposite directions. They are clearly not happy about what they have been hearing of administration actions in the affair or the President's personal role. They are not outraged and have not revised wholesale their views of Reagan's worth.
The U.S. News/CNN survey provides new information on the question of how intensely different segments of the public are reacting to what they hear. How upset are you about the Iran-contra developments: ``If you think it is one of the most serious and shocking things in your memory, give it a 10. If you think it's a rather minor tempest in a teapot, give it a 1.'' Twenty-three percent ranked the disclosures low in importance (1-3), 41 percent in the midrange, while 34 percent thought them very serious (8-10). Partisan differences here are as of yet only moderately strong: 25 percent of Republicans, 26 percent of independents, and 46 percent of Democrats described the Iranian arms disclosures as very serious.
The big middle moves back and forth, depending on precisely what they are being asked to assess. For the most part, they don't think the President has been telling them the whole truth. The U.S. News/CNN poll asked a question that began by noting that Sen. Ernest Hollings ``said last week that President Reagan knows a lot more than he has been admitting.'' It continued: ``Do you think Senator Hollings is right, or that President Reagan is telling all he knows?'' Sixty-six percent said that Mr. Hollings is right. Yet many who doubt Reagan on this issue still give him generally high marks for integrity. Thus, when the CBS News/New York Times poll of Dec. 7-8 asked respondents whether they believed that ``Ronald Reagan has more honesty and integrity than most people in public life,'' 54 percent said that he does, just 35 percent that he does not.
About two-thirds of those interviewed in the new U.S. News/CNN poll disagreed that ``it is time to put this [the arms controversy] behind us and move on to other critical issues facing the nation.'' They want the issue examined and the truth revealed. But many at the same time want a sense of proportion maintained. This explains the emerging frustration over press coverage. ``President Reagan has blamed press coverage for creating much of this controversy. Do you agree it is largely the press's fault?'' Forty-six percent said it was, 48 percent that it wasn't.
Right now, Americans of the ambivalent middle are controlling the overall shape of public response to the Iranian disclosures - and accounting for the rich contradiction the polls are showing. They don't think the President has done well with any facet of the matter, and they don't think he has given them a full and straight accounting. As a result, Reagan's job performance ratings have dropped sharply. But they still like the President, still support his general approach to governing - and, of course, still want his presidency, as they want every presidency, to succeed.
Everett Carll Ladd is director of the Roper Center, University of Connecticut.