Will the White House Get Any Media Honeymoon?

RECENT negative press coverage about Bill Clinton's presidency and his new economic plan is akin to a curmudgeonly old uncle telling the newlyweds their happiness won't last - as they're leaving for their honeymoon. Network pundits from ABC's Cokie Roberts to CNN's Wolf Blitzer have raked President Clinton over the coals for supposedly violating a whole host of campaign promises.

Newspaper columnists accuse the new president of "fudging" and "backing and filling" on such issues as the federal deficit and taxes. Jerry Roberts of the San Francisco Chronicle sniped that "Bill Clinton's honeymoon is over." John McLaughlin asked rhetorically on one of his recent TV programs, "Is the honeymoon over before the marriage?"

On this topic, the media and political pundits are clearly out of touch with the American public they claim to understand. According to several recent measures of public opinion, the vast majority of Americans approve of the way Clinton has handled himself since the election and want him to have a traditional honeymoon period.

In three national polls taken after his State of the Union speech, Clinton's approval rating for his new plan ranged from 62 percent to 79 percent.

In a Gallup poll of Feb. 17, 72 percent said they expect Clinton's program will lower the deficit and improve the economy. Furthermore, the majority of respondents in most national polls say they know it will be unlikely for Clinton to keep all of his campaign pledges.

There are two major reasons why the media "experts" have misread the public's reaction to Clinton's performance thus far.

First, in search of a "new angle" on our new president, many pundits have a short memory. Or worse, they choose to ignore certain inconvenient facts. Consider the issues on which the press has criticized Clinton most harshly - the middle-class tax cut and reducing the federal deficit by half during his first term. Not since the end of the primary season has Clinton emphasized a middle-class tax cut as a central goal of his economic policy. Indeed, as early as July he said he might have to "scale back dra matically any possible tax cut" for middle-income workers (an announcement that made front page news at the time). In the fall campaign, Clinton continually stated that any middle-class tax cut would be subject to "other budgetary pressures" that he would have to balance after taking office.

As for reducing the budget deficit by half, Clinton stated in the second debate, when asked by a man from the audience whether he could assure voters he would do this, that it was "a goal, which I intend to do everything I can to try and fulfill." He went on to say that "changing circumstances may make it more difficult," but added that "the voters will be the final judge" of whether he has been sincere in trying to reach this goal when he is up for re-election in four years.

Second, the media mavins have underestimated the level of awareness and sophistication the American public has been showing about national politics. The 43 percent of voters who cast their ballots for Clinton last year, and the majority of the citizenry who support him now, do not have any expectations of another Reaganesque "Morning in America," with the new president solving all the problems he promised to tackle before the end of his first term.

Rather, the public seems to expect careful, measured, and steady efforts toward reforms in our health-care system, campaign financing, deficit reduction, and such social issues as gays in the military, AIDS research, abortion rights, and gun control. The American public understands (to the apparent surprise of the media), that it is impossible for a candidate to keep most, let alone all, of his campaign promises.

This is not to say that the majority of American citizens have become so cynical about their government that they expect no sincerity or accountability from their leaders anymore. Instead, indications are that the public has reached a balanced, realistic view of the role of government in improving their lives. America's citizens realize that somewhere between cynicism and naivete lies wisdom; between idealism and corruption lies reform.

Americans understand the realities of the political system in our nation today and the complex nature of the challenges that face the new administration. So, as the country embarks on this new beginning it is we, not the media, who will decide to give President Clinton - and ourselves - a much needed honeymoon.

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