US Mood Gloomy, but Not Nearly As Bad as '30s or '70s, Analysts Say

PRESSURES for change continue to build in the American body politic.

The economy registered sobering new statistics, scaling back some of the optimism about how fast it was going to revive.

Housing starts fell 17 percent in April after rising in February and March, the largest drop in eight years. The trade deficit, which has been narrowing unsteadily since 1987, suddenly inflated in April.

Neither figure represents an actual downturn, as most economists read them. But this certainly is not a familiar pattern of recovery.

Familiar patterns are not holding in politics either. In a strong sign of American dissatisfaction, a Time-CNN survey last weekend showed President Bush and the Democratic near-nominee Bill Clinton trailing an unannounced independent candidate with no political experience.

Ross Perot and Mr. Bush are generally within striking distance of each other in the polls these days, at between 30 and 35 percent. Mr. Clinton tends to run just behind them. (Ross Perot baffles analysts, Page 2.)

These views are fickle. Just over a year ago, Bush's approval ratings were close to 90 percent in many surveys; during his term he has had the highest popularity ratings in the history of polling. Now he is at his lowest approval rating ever.

Confidence in Congress, of course, is even lower, averaging around 20 percent. The last time approval of Congress was this low was during the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D), at a Monitor lunch on Wednesday, explained the Perot support as a message to working politicians: "Everyone's saying, 'You're not giving us good-enough answers.' "

In the Bush administration, many officials are feeling the pressure for action on an urban agenda and are setting out their own markers. If they have not achieved some significant policy change by the end of next month, says Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp - and other officials speaking anonymously - then White House seriousness about urban problems is open to question.

Congress is also feeling the heat of voter frustration. It is probably weeks away from voting to amend the Constitution to require balanced federal budgets. Some members long opposed to the amendment are giving up on balancing the budget through politics as usual. The deficit, nearing $400 billion this year, keeps breaking records.

Some political scientists see the dissatisfaction among voters as mostly superficial compared to other times or other countries. "We're nowhere near crisis in our political system," says Michael Robinson, a public-opinion expert at Georgetown University. "It was much worse in 1968, when a third of young people seriously questioned the legitimacy of the United States."

"The degree of real underlying lack of confidence was much greater in the '30s and the '70s," says Everett Carll Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.

Polls have become volatile, changing mirrors and magnifiers of public moods, he says, but Americans have a basic belief in their political institutions. "There's no great challenge to our value cosmology as in the Great Depression," says Dr. Ladd.

Yet most political strategists and poll readers are seeing levels of voter cynicism and anti-incumbent sentiment that they don't recall since at least the Carter years.

"We're setting some records for low trust in the institutions," says James Thurber, an American University professor and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.

The economy is an important element in the political dissatisfaction in America. It continues to defy expectations, based on past recoveries, that its momentum will pick up. The bad news on trade and housing starts this week was not as bad as it appeared on the surface. Both measures had shown strength in previous months. And overall growth in domestic production rose to about a 2 percent annual rate during the first quarter of the year.

"But the first quarter gave rise to an optimism about the strength of the economy that really was not warranted," says Gail Fosler, chief economist of the New York-based Conference Board. In fact, she says, no sign has appeared of anything approaching a normally robust recovery.

The housing construction industry has held steady this year, says S. Jay Levy, chairman of Levy Economics Institute.

The trade deficit has been on a plateau for about six months, he says, adding that the improved growth in the first quarter was largely due to the federal government's increased deficit spending.

Deficit spending is falling off somewhat through the rest of the year, and in the private economy, the forces of caution remain in a rough balance with the forces for growth, says Ms. Fosler.

Both economists expect growth to weaken late this year, creating - says Fosler - "great pressure for change" on the body politic. Attitudes have changed dramatically in the past few years, she says. The central concern of government officials has shifted from holding inflation down to expanding growth and jobs.

Professor Robinson says that the 1990s are characterized by a growing importance of the economy in national attitudes and a more palpable concern than ever about the breakdown of families and other social institutions. But, he adds: "Even when we were number one in everything, in the 1950s, we were terribly unhappy with where we were."

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