Year-End Report Card For Freshman President

BILL Clinton is ending his first year in office on an upbeat note, evident in his success in getting the North American Free Trade Agreement approved. Polls show his approval ratings climbing a bit. Even so, President Clinton's public approval is far lower than that of any other postwar president in his first year, with the exception of Gerald Ford.

In 25 surveys taken by the Gallup Organization from Inauguration Day through Dec. 4, an average of 49 percent of respondents said they approved his handling of the presidency - ranging from a high of 59 percent approval in a Feb. 26-28 poll to a low of 37 percent in a June 5-6 poll. In the Dec. 2-4 Gallup survey 52 percent said they approved of his job performance.

These ratings are markedly below those of other modern presidents in their first years. John Kennedy got the highest marks according to Gallup, an average approval score of 76 percent in 1961. Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman had average ratings of 75 percent approval, raised somewhat by sympathy as they took office upon the deaths of popular incumbents.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents polled by Gallup in 1953 approved Dwight Eisenhower's conduct of the presidency; 64 percent did so for George Bush in 1989, 62 percent for Jimmy Carter in 1977, and 58 percent gave approval to Ronald Reagan's presidency in 1981. That leaves only Mr. Ford with a lower average approval (47 percent) than Clinton for his first year. Ford took office under unusually adverse conditions, following the forced resignation of Richard Nixon. Ford's subsequent pardoning of him caused his standing to drop sharply.

Gallup is cited here because it is the only survey organization with readings on every modern president. But the picture we get from others on popularity of the more recent presidencies is essentially the same. For example, in 16 surveys taken this year by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman for Time Magazine, 45 percent of respondents approved Clinton's handling of the presidency, 42 percent disapproved, and 12 percent declared themselves undecided. In the latest of these, taken Dec. 2, 46 percent approved.

Presidents get their highest marks from adherents of their own parties. Seventy-five percent of Democrats told Gallup in the 1993 surveys that they approved Clinton's handling of the presidency. This is about 10 points lower than the ratings of most modern presidents among their fellow partisans. But Clinton is 2 points higher for the year among Democrats than Carter was in his first year, and 9 points higher than Ford in Republican ranks.

It is among independents and Republicans that Clinton's ratings are notably low. His 45 percent approval for 1993 among independents is 14 points below that of Mr. Reagan, his lowest-scoring predecessor excepting Ford.

Looking to the marks given by backers of the major party opposition, Clinton trails everyone. His approval score among Republicans is 23 points lower than Carter's for the first year, 41 points lower than Johnson's, and 35 points lower than Kennedy's. Similarly, Clinton's Republican rating is 29 percentage points below Mr. Bush's approval from Democrats, 17 points lower than Reagan's, 15 points lower than Ford's, 33 points below Ike's and 26 points below Nixon's approval rating among Democrats.

Eighty-one percent of those who said they voted for Clinton in November 1992 were recorded by Gallup as approving his presidency. Thirty-nine percent of Perot voters approve, but just 17 percent of Bush's backers give Clinton a positive mark.

Along with party identification, self-described ideology also correlates highly with Clinton approval. Conservatives are much less likely to approve his handling of the presidency (32 percent) than are moderates (52 percent) or liberals (67 percent).

This correlation holds within party ranks. For example, just 30 percent of self-described conservative independents approve of Clinton's conduct of his office, as against 46 percent of moderate independents, and 55 percent of liberal independents.

Clinton is a white Southerner with Baptist church affiliation. But, looking to regional and ethnic groups, he gets his worst marks among white Southern Protestants, just 34 percent of whom approved his handling of the presidency in 1993. Heavily Democratic, African Americans give Clinton higher approval than does any other large demographic group.

On the whole, demographic group differences in Clinton support are unusually small. He gets a composite 50 percent approval among college graduates and 49 percent approval among persons with less than high school education. He gets only slightly better marks among those with incomes under $15,000 a year than among those over $50,000. Young and old give him nearly identical levels of approval, as do Protestants and Catholics.

The now-familiar gender gap is present, but not large: 51 percent of women, compared with 46 percent of men, endorse Clinton's presidential conduct.

Clearly, the polarization of Clinton's presidency is political and philosophic, not demographic.

The question remains: Why are this bright, hard-working, telegenic young president's overall approval ratings still low by modern standards? I'll turn to that in my first column in the new year.

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