Sixty Percent President

Despite nagging ethics questions, the president's approval rating remains high - and strikingly stable.

As President Clinton called on reporters at his sun-splashed south-lawn press conference this week, he could hardly be forgiven if he looked a bit smug.

He laid out an agenda for the fall that could bring him into increasing conflict with the GOP-led Congress - but did so secure in the knowledge that his public-approval ratings remain at historically enviable levels.

Whether his popularity will help him prevail in forcing through such initiatives as national education standards and curbing global warming remains to be seen. But it's clear that, 55 months into his presidency, Mr. Clinton is maintaining what experts consider strikingly stable ratings - ones that rank him well with other two-term presidents this century.

Indeed, even though surveys show Congress is getting more credit than the president for the just-signed tax and budget agreements, he consistently outpolls his colleagues on the Hill (in part because the public typically prefers an individual person over an institution).

His Gallup approval ratings - 58 percent - are ahead of where President Reagan's were at this point in his presidency. The latest ABC-Washington Post poll puts him at 64 percent approval, and 31 percent disapproval.

But isn't it really just the economy, stupid? Or is there something larger going on here? In spite of all his problems - White Water, Paula Jones, campaign fund raising - Clinton seems to have taken a page out of Reagan's playbook and donned a layer of Teflon that protects him even as his various scandals and flaps unfold.

"Certainly the economy is buoying his fortunes, but I think there's now a comfort level with this president," says Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "People have made up their minds about what they think about him in so many ways."

People also don't have to worry anymore about whether or not to reelect him, and they have in general stopped thinking about Washington. The lack of messy foreign entanglements removes another possible negative.

Standing in South

Even in the South, where Clinton's approval ratings are typically lower than in the rest of the country, he's more popular than he has been.

"I think there's been a little bit of a feeling that people have been dumping on him unfairly," says Hastings Wyman, publisher of the Southern Political Report. He notes that white Southerners generally reject "one of their own" whom they perceive as too liberal, just as the rich viewed President Franklin Roosevelt as a traitor to his class.

Still, Southerners appreciate the fact that Clinton "doesn't give in to all this negative stuff," Mr. Wyman says. "Plus, he's done a brilliant job contrasting himself with the Republican Congress."

That final point may be what makes Republicans gnash their teeth most about Clinton. Democrats credit the president with understanding the concerns of average Americans - the amorphous "center" - and pounding home policies to benefit them, such as tuition tax credits for college and child tax credits for lower-income families.

It is, says a long time Democratic hand, a "thousand points of positioning" on issues like crime, schools, and television. "But it works," he adds. "Clinton has found the cultural comfort zone of the public."

Some Republicans only shake their heads in rueful awe. "Democrats are so effective in fighting the class war, and nobody is as effective as the president," Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas told conservative columnist Robert Novak.

But for Clinton its more than just a question of reading polls and following the public's lead. The real secret of Bill Clinton (aside from a dream economy) is his ability to communicate empathy, says Roderick Hart, a political rhetoric expert at the University of Texas at Austin.

The 'feminine presidency'

The bit about "feeling our pain" has become a cliche, but the fact is that Clinton is comfortable talking about human emotions. "That's what growing up in the '60s was all about," says Mr. Hart. "And it is what makes Clinton appeal to women voters. He has a very feminine side to him."

For that reason, little of Clinton's success has trickled down to other Democrats, not least, Al Gore. The vice president may be well positioned politically to pick up where Clinton leaves off in 2000, but he falls short on charisma, says Hart.

For congressional Democrats, membership in Clinton's party may actually be a slight negative in 1998. While a majority of voters approve of Clinton's performance, they still don't trust him. Some voters may be inclined to vote for a Republican for Congress as a check on Clinton, say election watchers.

Furthermore, 1998 is shaping up to be a locally oriented election, with members of Congress rising or falling based on what they have done for their constituents rather than their positions on any national issues. "I think it will be very hard for either party to ride any sort of crest, unless the Republicans continue to bicker through this Congress," says Wyman. "But I don't think they will."

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