WASHINGTON — THE NAFTA victory for President Clinton this week played to his greatest weakness in public opinion - strength.
The White House pollster, Stanley Greenberg, told reporters at a Monitor breakfast yesterday that Mr. Clinton's lowest aspect in public esteem is not his policy positions but doubts that he is strong enough to carry them through.
The high-profile wheeling and dealing the president undertook in the final days of the NAFTA battle will not hurt his image, says Dr. Greenberg, but will bolster it.
``The public is not looking for an innocent for president,'' he says. ``It wants someone who knows how to use and handle power.''
In the earliest days of the Clinton administration, from Inauguration Day through the State of the Union speech in February, public views of Clinton were dominated by a sense of hope, says Greenberg. But early in his term, Clinton lost most of the stimulus package from his budget proposals, and the public began to doubt if this president could get things done.
People watching the NAFTA campaign from both inside and outside Congress, he surmises, will now be more likely to conclude that Clinton is likely to win his health-care battle as well.
Although Clinton carried only a minority of his own party in the House vote on NAFTA, winning with strong Republican support, Greenberg notes that party cohesion behind Clinton has actually been ``very high'' during his first year as President.
Greenberg suspects that the support for Clinton's health-care package will be some sort of hybrid between party-line support and the extremely cross-party split over NAFTA. ``Clearly, this president has the versatility to do both,'' the pollster says.
Greenberg does not see NAFTA as a political issue with a long shelf life, however.
The pollster was hooted in Congress last week when he told members that NAFTA ``will soon be forgotten.'' But he insists that as important as the issue is, many other votes still to come will figure much larger for blue-collar Americans worried about jobs and security.
How politicians voted on NAFTA, he says, ``is not going to be a voting issue'' for the public in future elections.
Ross Perot was weakened as a leader by his debate with Vice President Gore, says Greenberg, but the alienated voters that Mr. Perot has appealed to still need to be taken very seriously, he says. Health care, education reform, and tax changes are largely aimed at these voters.