President's Perfect Position

Clinton has responded to Americans' readjusted expectations

Current public opinion on government and the economy suggests that voters have apparently adjusted expectations of the government and for themselves. President Clinton has recognized this and positioned himself perfectly in the political mainstream.

Interestingly, what appears to have developed out of political necessity may now evolve into a a third way, a new definition of the role of government and citizenship that is neither liberal nor conservative. It may become Mr. Clinton's mark on political history. Our polling data reveals a downsizing of the American Dream and the recognition (by as many as two-thirds of the voters) that neither the president nor Congress will solve problems people care deeply about.

Voters appear to be saying that they have reconciled themselves to the inevitable impact of forces beyond their control - international markets and new technologies - that directly affect their individual economic security. Nearly 1 in 5 voters live in households where someone is working at a job that pays less than an immediate previous job, and many of them no longer dream of a big house, a big car, or a swimming pool. They have learned to tighten their belts and be thankful that their plight is not worse. They've been numbed by stories of record deficits, gridlock, partisan bickering, and bipartisan scandals.

In his State of the Union address, the president was careful about expanding the role of the federal government. While he cited much unfinished business in the areas of a balanced budget, welfare reform, campaign finance reform, and family leave, his emphasis was on education. Clinton also restated the social goals of expanding access to health care, doubling the number of empowerment zones, and fighting drugs. But in none of his proposals did he call for significant spending initiatives. For instance, in education he outlined a mix of targeted tax credits and deductions, national standards and goals, and using the federal government as a bully pulpit.

Low expectations

Clinton has been criticized for offering small or incremental solutions to big problems, such as health care and education. However, these small steps match people's expectations and his own personal goals. Clinton did not win any sweeping mandate from the voters in November. Why risk a battering from conservative interest groups, as he did on health care reform, when the public does not expect much from him anyway? The president is able to say that he feels our pain, but he is not expected to make that pain go away.

Our poll for Reuters news service of 1,008 likely voters conducted in late January shows why this is so. We asked voters to rate the importance of a number of issues, most of which are central to the role of government. These included: a major health care initiative with coverage for uninsured children, fixing federal entitlements, limiting campaign spending, reducing crime and drug use, and balancing the budget. Consistent majorities ranging from 65 percent to 85 percent rated these issues as very important. Yet, when asked whether Clinton or Congress was capable of doing the job, 40 percent was as high a capable rating as either got. In every case, however, Clinton ranked higher than Congress.

Voters clearly reject the Republican prescription for balancing the federal budget. We asked them to choose between two strategies: major tax cuts financed by cuts in social programs such as Medicare or protecting these programs and foregoing lower taxes. By nearly 4-to-1, voters said they would reject tax cuts so as not to harm social programs. At the same time, voters aren't inclined to endorse any broad federal action on these issues. Still, there is no longer a convincing argument to say that people hate government or uniformly want less government.

The middle of the road

Thus, Clinton has wisely taken a middle path. During the campaign, he chose a strategy of triangulation, aimed at isolating the GOP right and carving out the middle of the political spectrum for himself. In effect, he won reelection as America's first "third party" candidate - neither a New Deal liberal nor a Reagan conservative.

He has now taken it upon himself to forge this position born out of political necessity into a new political ideology. We got the first glimpse of this new direction in his Inaugural address. Following up on themes from his 1996 State of the Union message, when he declared that the "era of big government is over," Clinton asked Americans to accept more responsibility and depend on government less. At the same time, he reminded us that the federal government must "balance the budget without losing the balance of its values."

Just as President Kennedy called for a new spirit of citizenship, Clinton has responded to a different era's issues and an altered public mood by calling for a renewed spirit of volunteerism, more "personal responsibility for ourselves, our family, our neighborhood, and our nation." As he said in his Inaugural, "Times change and government must change." With no cold war superpower nuclear threat or looming economic depression, this isn't an era crying out for a strong chief executive or a modern New Deal. Equally, American voters tell us and other pollsters that they are somewhat optimistic about their lives because they can control their own budgets, and their dreams aren't so big.

In response to the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt said all that Americans had to fear was fear itself. Today, Americans fear a government that threatens to take away the entitlements they cherish, like Medicare and Social Security. Indeed, our Reuters poll shows that more people than ever are investing in the stock market as a hedge against the demise of Social Security.

Voters are tired of gridlock, of bickering, of expecting too much for themselves and from the government. They simply want to know that there will not be less in their future. Clinton has identified and addressed this sentiment.

*John J. Zogby, president and chief executive officer of Zogby International, conducts polls for Reuters News Agency, the New York Post, and Fox TV.

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