West's Sluggish Economies Add To Deficit in Public Confidence


THE leaders of the United States House and Senate, beginning the final, delicate, high-stakes phase of budget reconciliation, are playing to a restless public that will not be easily satisfied.

The leaders are seeking to pare down two runaway deficits. On one, they will attempt to agree on President Clinton's effort to cut $500 billion from the federal deficit over the next five years.

The other deficit runs deeper. It is a profound and uneasy lack of confidence in government and politicians that has saturated the Western democracies like a rising water table.

Sluggish economies are an important part of voters' dissatisfaction with their governments. Average European unemployment is over 11 percent, and in the US, continuing layoffs at firms such as IBM and Apple Computer are more visible than the jobs created at smaller companies.

But at the root of the discontent, public opinion analysts cite a vague but widespread sense that developments in the world economy are out of control and that government is not working on the side of the average, middle-class citizen.

Throughout the wealthy West, people see immigrants rushing in and jobs rushing out, says Samuel Popkin, a former Clinton campaign adviser and a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego.

"The real thing that has happened in the last five years is that there is no more job security," Dr. Popkin says.

In the US, an extensive study of Perot voters issued last week found that the main target of their deepening alienation is Congress, and their main concern over the deficit is not a literal calculation of its harm to the economy or the next generation.

Rather, the deficit is a symbol of Congress's irresponsibility and ineffectiveness in the face of an escalating problem, according to Stanley Greenberg, the president's pollster who carried out the study.

Perot voters, about 1 voter in 5, represent a dense concentration of a broader voter view. For President Clinton to overcome the deep cynicism that these voters hold for their government, says Dr. Greenberg, he will have to show a sustained record of effective action on the problems people care most about, starting with job creation.

Greenberg implies that for the Perot voters, at least, even a very successful outcome of the budget reconciliation for Clinton would still be greeted with strong skepticism.

Throughout the industrial democracies, the level of discontent with government is "both dramatic and consequential," says Everett Carll Ladd, director of the Roper Center for the Study of Public Opinion at the University of Connecticut. "Large numbers of people in all industrial democracies see government as a problem," he says.

In the US, the only demographic group that still sees government as an ally is blacks, he says.

In Europe, voters have traditionally had less confidence in government than Americans have, says Bert Rockman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. That comparison still holds. While Clinton breaks records for the lowest approval rating in polling history so early in a US presidency, his foreign colleagues are all faring worse.

British Prime Minister John Major is scoring the lowest approval ratings in British history. And until Brian Mulroney was recently replaced as Canadian prime minister, his 9 percent to 11 percent approval ratings were among the lowest ever registered for a head of government in a democracy, Dr. Ladd says.

In the US, state and local governments are not immune to voter anger. Alan Rosenthal, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, recently observed focus group discussions with voters in California, Minnesota, and New Jersey and found a high level of anger at state legislatures.

Ironically, state governments tend to be further away from voter consciousness than the federal government is because the news media cover them less. But voters also tend to spread their views of one level of government out to others.

But the view of government derived from news reports - dominated by scandal and controversy - is often different from the one derived from personal experience. In recent national Gallup surveys asking people to grade schools, Americans give the nation's schools D's or F's as often as A's or B's. But easily twice the proportion give A's or B's to the school their oldest child attends.

Public expectations of government have risen over the years, "partly because government has delivered, partly because candidates have promised," Dr. Rosenthal says. With voters feeling economically insecure, they have yet to feel that government is delivering.

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