Clinton's Ratings Slip, But Many in Public Still Trust His Motives

Many voters feel president has vision for the country, but doubt his economic plan and key appointments

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TOO many tax increases. Too much government waste. Too little action to fix the economy.

Seven months after they voted Bill Clinton into the White House, Americans worry about all those problems, and many blame the president. Public confidence is waning, anxiety is waxing.

Most important, Americans fret that the economy, which they elected President Clinton to repair, is still sputtering like a dilapidated V-8, despite last month's drop in unemployment.

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Recent polls from the Wirthlin Group, the New York Times/CBS, CNN/USA Today, and others find the public's enthusiasm for their young president is being quickly sapped. Voters are troubled by record-setting tax proposals, liberal appointees, the gays-in-the-military issue, and even the $200 haircut.

A new Field Poll finds Mr. Clinton's job-approval rating in California has fallen to just 31 percent. Nationwide, a CNN/USA Today poll done by Gallup puts Clinton at only 37 percent approval - a record low for any modern president.

Political scientist Earl Black says the early months of the Clinton White House have "put a lot of Democrats on the defensive. Clinton has lost a lot of credibility," he says.

What's gone wrong? Political analyst Charles Cook says it's the little things as well as the big ones that hurt the president and alienate supporters on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Cook, editor of "The Cook Political Report," points to one senator who found himself boxed in by White House guidelines on a new federal judge nomination. The only choices, the senator suggested, were "fully unqualified," Cook says.

"The senator found it absolutely disgusting," Cook reports, "but because he was opposing the president on so many other things, he felt obliged" to go along.

Cook says rather than filling key federal jobs with "accomplished government officials," the president is picking "people from think tanks, from the academic world, without a real grounding in the world of governing." That is leading to serious mistakes, he says.

All this grumbling disturbs some outside observers. Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, recently in Washington, said: "I think any serious observer would tell you how silly it is to pass judgment on the president of the United States after 90 or 100 days." Mr. Mulroney called Clinton "an impressive leader" and suggested Americans should give him a break.

Indeed, Clinton wins admiration from voters on some important fronts. The Times/CBS poll found that 69 percent of Americans think Clinton "has a vision of where he wants to lead the country." Some 62 percent say he "cares about the needs and problems of people like them."

On the other side, support for Clinton's economic plan skidded this month to just 34 percent, down from 53 percent in February.

Cook suggests Clinton's problems fall into seven categories:

* Discipline and focus. During the campaign, the president promised to focus like a laser beam on the economy. Instead, Cook blames the president for an unfocused, "Coleman-lantern approach" that highlights every issue equally.

* Economics. Americans were ready for a tough-but-fair plan to get the US out of a rut, polls show. But Clinton would raise taxes sharply - and leave most spending intact. Voters see that as a "lack of political will," Cook says.

* Strained Democratic relations. The party controls both Congress and the White House. When Clinton arrived, three out of four voters thought government would work better that way. Today, only one in three still believes it.

* Strained Republican relations. Moderate Republicans, especially in the Senate, were ready to work with Clinton. He ignored them, and is paying the price.

* Financial markets. Clinton promised to be "a different kind of Democrat." That buoyed markets. But his big tax package has dashed those hopes and deflated business confidence.

* Escapism. Heading out to the hustings every few weeks won't help Clinton, Cook says. The problem isn't communications. It is substance. Proposals should match rhetoric.

* Diversity over experience. Cook sees the administration filled with inexperienced aides, a problem he says is "compounded by a tone of self-righteousness."

The Wirthlin poll finds public confidence at new lows. Among those who are particularly worried that the country is going in the wrong direction are the middle class (earning $30,000 to $60,000), whites, voters over 55 (especially women), independents, Republicans, and voters in New England, the Farm Belt, the Deep South, and the Pacific Coast.

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