OVER the course of his first year in the White House, Bill Clinton compiled lower public approval scores than any other new president in the span polls have been conducted - with the single, narrow exception of Gerald Ford, who took office under a cloud.
I reviewed the survey data in my Dec. 17 column, noting that in the nearly 30 polls that Gallup conducted last year for USA Today and CNN, an average of just 49 percent said they approved his conduct of the country's highest office.
The president's numbers rose a bit in December. His performance was approved by 54 percent in the last Gallup poll of the year, taken Dec. 17-19. In the Harris survey of Dec. 20-26, 50 percent rated ``the overall job President Clinton is doing as president'' as either excellent or good, 5 percent more than gave him this positive review in the November Harris poll, and 9 percent more than in August. In December, 49 percent rated President Clinton's performance negatively - as ``only fair'' or poor.
It is true that, while Clinton got well-below-average marks from the public for his first year, his approval scores in December do not compare unfavorably to those of a very successful predecessor, Ronald Reagan, at the end of his first year in office. In the Harris survey of December 1981, for example, just 47 percent called Mr. Reagan's performance excellent or good, 52 percent only fair or poor.
But Reagan got his 47 percent positive score at a time when the United States economy was plunging into a deep recession. The span from late 1981 through early 1983 is easily seen as an abnormal low point in Reagan's public standing.
In contrast, Clinton's December 1993 marks were recorded as the economy was surging ahead and consumer confidence was climbing sharply - not plummeting as it had been in December 1981. In general, until the renewal of charges involving his sexual and financial conduct, which came after most of the December polling had been completed, Clinton had been on a run of political good news and successes.
Whether deserved or not, then, the president's public standing -
for all of his first year and now at the end of it - is low by any reasonable comparison. Why this is so deserves attention, and surely it should interest his backers at least as much as it does his opponents.
It's not that Clinton is actively disliked in personal terms. Overall, the public sees him as open and likable. Moreover, high proportions are consistently found responding that he ``cares about the needs of people like [me]'' - 65 percent, for example, in a CBS News/New York Times survey of mid-November. The president is widely seen as intelligent, well-informed, and as having a vision for the country. In general, a large segment of the public, much bigger than the portion that overall approves his conduct of the office, is ready to credit him with many positive attributes.
The weakness in his public standing results in large measure from factors that raise doubts about his leadership as president. One element here is philosophical. Clinton wants to be an activist president, which means, first and foremost, leading the way to new federal initiatives. Much of the public, however, is skeptical about such activism. They voted for ``change'' in 1992, but they did not give up their resistance to extending government's reach, which has set the tone for national politics since the 1970s. Asked in a Los Angeles Times poll in June of 1993, for example, whether they ``favor smaller government with fewer services, or larger government with many services,'' 60 percent opted for less government and only 29 percent for more.
Inevitably, the doubts of a large proportion of the US public - that a further expansion of government is what the country needs - fuel doubts about the leadership of a president who is calling for new governmental activism.
Clinton has raised another, entirely different type of concern about his leadership. He understands that there is widespread national dissatisfaction with ``politics as usual,'' but ironically he has added to it by inviting questions at times as to whether his commitments can be counted on. It's not clear how much allegations concerning his personal conduct enter into the public's judgments here. It is clear that he is seen as a president who often flip-flops on matters large and small, foreign and domestic.
Polls pick this up in a number of ways. They show, for example, majorities faulting him for trying to do too many things at once, and for changing his position when he is strongly opposed. A Times Mirror Center survey taken in early December, when his presidency was on an upswing, found only 41 percent stating that ``keeps his promises'' reflected their impression of Clinton.
As he reaches the end of his first year in office, the president gets good marks in many areas - in particular for his energy, ability, and common touch. But he needs to enlarge and strengthen public trust in his leadership.
The other factor holding his public approval down, though, is one he and his supporters really may not wish to change. For at heart Bill Clinton is more confident about governmental solutions than are the majority of his fellow citizens.