WHEN asked to rate the presidents he has observed over the years as speakers, Speaker of the House Tom Foley (D) of Washington said that Bill Clinton was ``right up there with Ronald Reagan,'' a politician who certainly knew how to hold an audience with his words.
President Clinton reminds one of Mr. Reagan in his use of anecdotes and in his request that individuals in the audience stand up to illustrate a point or receive credit.
But we all knew Ronald Reagan and we all know that Clinton is no Reagan. The ``Great Communicator,'' with skills honed in Hollywood, never had to practice very much. During his campaigns he would sometimes see his text for the first time as he spoke. And no one could tell. Also, Reagan would never talk too long - as Clinton almost did in his State of the Union address, which has been widely acclaimed as a particularly effective speech.
Sincerity rings through both Reagan's and Clinton's oratory. The audience listens intently to both. But at least the other night, it seemed that Clinton was more passionate, more emotionally committed to what he was saying than Reagan ever was.
In popularity, Clinton is at this point faring better than Reagan was at the same time in his first term. Clinton's poll rating is up to where it was when he took office and way above poll ratings of some six months ago, which showed him at a record low.
His ``State'' speech seemed to be setting a popular course. At least one poll showed that 84 percent of the American people hailed his message, welcoming his pushing of health care, toughness on crime, and welfare reform. But this appreciation of Clinton is based more on recent signs of a strengthening economy than anything else. Clinton is given credit for it, even though this upward surge really began in the last quarter of the Bush administration.
When a president is riding high in public approval, particularly when the economy is robust or moving in that direction, it takes a lot to dent that standing. The Iran-contra charges might have badly scarred a president with economic troubles, but Reagan's popularity was sustained by a strong economy as well as by his likable character.
Clinton, too, is most likable. And this likability, together with a bettering economy, appear to have isolated him from charges of inappropriate activity in his private life.
Illustrative of this is a new Gallup poll, summed up by its pollsters: ``Recent allegations about Bill Clinton's private life and business dealings while governor of Arkansas have done little damage to the president's public image. More than half of the American public has followed the recent flurry of news stories involving Clinton's past. But approval of the way Clinton is handling his job remains at 54 percent - unchanged from mid-December, just before Arkansas state troopers went public with stories involving extramarital affairs they say Clinton had while governor.''
The poll summation continues: ``Most Americans say the troopers' charges have no effect on their overall opinion of Clinton. They believe that the charges are not relevant to Clinton's ability to serve as president.... However, the public is evenly split on whether or not the Whitewater real estate deal should be investigated more fully.''
When asked, at a Monitor breakfast the morning after the ``State'' speech, about stories relating to Clinton's character, Mr. Foley emphasized that the polls showed that the president obviously had been untouched by the charges.
So it is that the bulk of Americans perceive a president who is responding to their wishes.