White House maxim: proof is in the polling

David Gergen was late for a breakfast with reporters the other day, but still drew some applause for his obviously valiant effort at being punctual.

The President's director of communications laughs at himself for habitually being late for appointments. But he says there's a new Dave Gergen, that he's making a big effort to be on time. The ripple of applause came because Gergen, who had always trailed in considerably past 8 a.m. in a number of previous meetings with this group, had made it by 8:03.

Young Mr. Gergen, as tall as de Gaulle but extremely genial, was anxious to talk about new polls and what they said about the President's standing with the public.

''When we met together about a month ago,'' he said, ''I told you that our polls (from Richard Wirthlin and Robert Teeter) showed that the President's decline had flattened out. Now we are finding there is some upturn. And this rise in the President's job-approval rating, to the mid-40s and as high as the low 50s has occurred in the last few weeks.''

Asked his reasons for the President's rise, Gergen said:

''Some of the improvement came from the President's European trip. Then there is also greater public appreciation now that inflation has slowed. Then there is some modest but encouraging understanding now that the President is not cutting social security benefits. And finally there is a dramatic turnabout on the public's view of how the President views nuclear arms. More and more people now realize that he favors nuclear arms reduction - and that he is not aggressively opposed to reduction.''

There was some skepticism voiced by some in the group over the source of this information. Wasn't he simply drawing on ''friendly'' pollsters, those who polled for the administration, for this rosy assessment?

No, said Gergen. He realized that the Wirthlin-Teeter polls showed a bigger jump upward than that being indicated by other polls. But he contended that there ''is some il20l,0,36l,7p6strengthening of the President's position'' in a number of major polls ''in just the last few weeks.''

Later, in his White House office, Gergen supplied this reporter with a rundown of several polls:

The President's approval (excellent-good) rating is:

Going up in the Time Magazine-Yankelovich poll from 48 to 53 percent from March to June.

Going up in the Harris poll from 38 percent to 43 percent from April to June.

Going up in the NBC-AP poll from 42 to 43 percent from May to June.

And going up in the Gallup poll from 44 to 45 percent from May to June.

Gergen conceded that some of this upward flow was only slight. But he contended it was a trend - and that some of of the Wirthlin-Teeter polling was later than that reflected in the other recent national polls. Both of these pollsters, he said, now had the President in the lower 50s.

Beyond that, Gergen asserted, the polls showing the public's feeling for the President personally gave him a rating well up in the 60s and 70s.

The approval trend for the President is ''definitely on the rise,'' Gergen emphasized.

Asked in the interview following the breakfast why he responded so frequently to invitations to meet with the reporters assembled - 34 on this particular morning - in the Crystal Ballroom of the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel, Gergen said:

''It is of tremendous value to the President and the administration to talk to members of the press about matters behind the headlines. With this group it provides us - Meese, -Baker, Weidenbaum, Regan, myself, and many others - an opportunity to talk about the perspective behind what the President is doing: Why we are doing this, why we are not doing that.''

On leading topics of the day, Gergen had this to say:

* On the economy. ''We are in a transition phase (from recession to recovery). Three to six months ago all economic signs were negative. There are still some that are negative - but there has been an obvious change (for the better). The recovery is weaker than we'd hoped - and it will take longer than we had hoped.''

Will the administration be revising economic policy this year? Gergen says no.

* On the public's attitude toward the President's economic program: ''Over 6 out of 10 Americans are saying it will take another year for the President's program to work. The great majority don't believe Reagan is responsible for this recession - they blame Carter and the Democrats. The President's political position for the fall is still strong.''

* The issues that damage the President the most politically? Here Gergen conceded that the public perception that the President is the rich man's friend has been damaging to Reagan. ''We are working to combat this myth,'' he added.

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