WASHINGTON — THE first blush of response to President Clinton's economic program made clear that he had tapped the willingness of Americans - most of them - to pay something more to reduce the federal deficit.
In the following few days, as the entire group of top administration officials fanned out in a policy sales blitz, the focus of public skepticism also sharpened to whether the spending cuts in the plan are serious enough. The skepticism appears to be registering strongly enough to significantly split support for the plan.
The nation's most unsentimental deficit-watchers - bond traders - received Mr. Clinton's plan well. Bond prices rose on both Feb. 18 and 19, lowering interest yields.
The plan got an even more influential endorsement from Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, a Republican deficit hawk who has treated inflation-fighting as the Fed's top priority.
Mr. Greenspan told the Senate Banking Committee Feb. 19 that the plan was a "serious proposal" that, if passed by Congress, could lead to lower interest rates.
In Congress, much response to the plan split predictably along party lines. But Rep. Robert Michel (R) of Illinois, the House minority leader who gave the televised response to Clinton's speech on the night of Feb. 17, called the plan a "juggernaut" at a Monitor breakfast Feb. 19.
The Democrats in the House of Representatives, he said, "have really got the votes to pass it if they stick together." The Senate may present a tougher course for the Clinton plan, however, since it can take 60 votes to move bills through the Senate process and the Democrats hold only 57 seats.
But votes on the most significant parts of the Clinton package are months and, likely, many arguments away. Much argument will probably concern the need for deeper spending cuts.
Initial surveys of people who watched Clinton's Feb. 17 speech to Congress showed that 74 percent to 79 percent of the public approved of the plan. In the speech, Clinton billed the deficit reduction as an equal balance of tax increases and spending cuts.
The next day, however, that balance was called into question. The White House admitted that what it touted as $493 billion in deficit reduction over four years had not added in the spending increases it sought. The true number would be $324 billion. The balance between cuts and taxes only held before Clinton's new spending plans are added in.
In fact, the change in spending - even in the fourth year of Clinton budgets where cuts are slated to be deepest - never approaches the size of the raised taxes.
Most Americans hold some skepticism that the government is asking more from them without tightening its own belt enough.
In a poll taken on the evening of Feb. 18, 58 percent of likely voters said that Clinton's proposed spending cuts did not go far enough. By comparison, 30 percent said the cuts were just right and only 4 percent said they went too far. The poll was taken by the Republican Tarrance Group and Democratic Greenberg-Lake for U.S. News & World Report magazine.
The skepticism about the cuts was most concentrated among the 19 percent of the electorate that voted for Ross Perot last fall. Among this group, 71 percent felt the cuts do not go far enough.
"To them, the deficit is not just an economic issue," says Ed Goeas, president of the Tarrance Group. "It's a symbol of wasteful government." This means that they are concerned not just that the deficit is controlled, but that government spending is brought under control as well.
Clinton needs to eventually win the backing of many Perot supporters, since he won the election with only 43 percent of the electorate. "The core of the Perot support is that Americans don't feel they are getting value out of government," says George Shipley, a Democratic political consultant in Austin, Texas. "A lot of people are going to say [Clinton] hasn't gone far enough" in cutting spending.
Pollsters are finding a clear public willingness to pay more to solve the nation's economic problems, starting with the deficit.
Fred Steeper, a former Bush campaign pollster, found support in recent polling for "everybody sacrificing something." But in computer-assisted polling exercises in which people worked out their own federal deficit cuts, they averaged $1.70 in spending cuts for every $1 in new taxes.
If the mix is right, it is likely people will support the taxes. In the magazine poll, 55 percent agreed raising taxes was necessary to cut the deficit. "The American public is willing to make sacrifices to rectify some of this stuff," Mr. Goeas says.
"I do think there's a bipartisan consensus in the country on the deficit," Mr. Shipley says. "It's time to be honest, get real, and move down the road."
The next question is who will come forward with deeper spending cuts.