THE huge establishment of modern American journalism repeatedly shows itself unable to bring proportion and judgment to its coverage of political controversies. Instead of providing balance, it surges from one exaggerated portrait to another, playing havoc with the nervous system and decisionmaking capacities of the body politic. Press treatment of the Bush presidency in the wake of its slips on taxing and the budget are but the latest example of this frustrating tendency. From a point of high standing, the Bush administration has been described as having fallen over the past two weeks into near-collapse and unremitting incompetence - ``disintegrating before our eyes,'' as one analyst put it.
Even the president's warmest admirers are likely to concede that October 1990 has not been the high point of the modern presidency. With the GOP controlling the White House and the Democrats Congress, and the two parties sharply divided, the budget issue - which is, of course, an argument over basic policies and priorities - is genuinely intractable. And, preoccupied by the crisis in the Middle East, and with a less coherent vision of domestic policy than of the new international order, the president has made mistakes of both substance and tactics on the budget.
Still, it's unlikely that anyone looking back three months hence on accounts of the plight of the Bush presidency during the first weeks of October will find them other than woefully exaggerated.
Poll interpretation, the part of public-affairs coverage I follow most closely, also evidences deficiencies of judgment and proportion. With few exceptions, recent poll stories have shown the president hit by a drastic, virtually unprecedented, drop in popular standing, to the point where his capacity to govern has been seriously impaired. In fact, survey findings don't support any of these conclusions.
The professionally sloppiest part of poll coverage of Bush and the budget involves fixing upon the comparisons of his current approval scores to those of August-September. Doing so makes for a more dramatic story, because Bush's public approval, high through most of his presidency, shot up following his vigorous response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
But it's an incomplete and thus inaccurate story because - as most poll analysts noted at the time - some non-trivial part of the immediate post-invasion endorsement was evidently soft and short-term. It's safe to say from past experience that even if things had gone swimmingly for the administration in the early fall, the president would have lost 10 points or so from his inflated late summer high.
Reports on Gallup polls (for Newsweek) stressed Bush's falling from 76 percent approval (August 23-26) to 54 percent (October 11-12); they should also have noted another relevant comparison - from 60 percent approval (Gallup poll of July 19-22) to 54 percent, a change considerably less dramatic. Similarly, reports on the Yankelovich Clancy Shulman polls (for Time and CNN) led with the drop from 74 percent approval (August 23) to 59 percent (October 10). They omitted the fact that the poll had the president's approval at 61 percent on July 24-25; by this standard, the July to October decline was a less than massive 2 percentage points.
Polls taken nationally in the first two weeks of October show between 54 percent and 65 percent indicating approval of Bush's handling of the presidency, with the median in the upper 50s. The composite of state polls I have been able to review suggest that the president's popularity has, if anything, been holding up even better. For example, the California Poll for October 4-9 found 54 percent of Californians rating Bush's job performance as excellent or good, 30 percent as fair, and just 15 percent as poor. This is the second highest rating the Poll has shown in the 21 months of the Bush presidency - and one down just slightly from the highest, recorded in August.
Overall, then, polls show some recent decline in Bush's standing - but a decline at once moderate and predictable given the rush of budget problems. Should the administration keep encountering setbacks comparable to those of early October, it will surely find its popular base badly eroded. But the decline thus far is of the sort every administration has experienced.
The idea that with 55-60 percent of those polled approving his handling of the presidency, and 70 percent saying they have a favorable view of him personally, Bush lacks the popular support needed to govern effectively is just plain silly.
Ronald Reagan was seen, correctly, as a popular president who exerted enormous influence on US policy. But Reagan's approval scores over his first 21 months in office were lower than Bush's have been at almost every point. In the fall of 1982, with the country in recession, Reagan stood well below where Bush is now in the fall of 1990 - but this hardly signaled the failure of his presidency. (See graph at left).
Americans obviously aren't delighted with the way their political leaders are handling taxing and spending, and Mr. Bush has been dragged down some by these adverse assessments. But the politics of the budget doesn't find him operating in a vacuum. Rather, it involves a competition between the president and congressional Democrats - and the polls by no means tell us the latter are winning.
For example, asked in the Time/CNN survey of October 10 who is more responsible for the current budget difficulties, 61 percent said Congress, just 23 percent the president. The CBS News/New York Times poll of October 8-10 found 60 percent approving and 30 percent disapproving Bush's handling of the presidency, while it recorded just 27 percent approving and 60 percent disapproving Congress's performance. The ABC News/Washington Post survey of October 10-14 asked this same pair of questions and got the same basic results. The 63 percent recorded as disapproving Congress's overall performance was the highest since the depths of public frustration during Watergate in 1974.
Most of us would vastly prefer a situation where both president and Congres are held in record high esteem. The polity would then be healthier. But if the current findings should hardly give anyone satisfaction, neither should they be seen supporting the conclusion that the popular standing of the Bush presidency has plunged precipitously, or that Congress has gained the upper hand in its continuing competition with the White House.