THE tide of public opinion that was shifting away from Democrats has turned in their favor in recent weeks, says Stanley Greenberg, the White House's unofficial pollster.
President Clinton's own public-approval ratings have risen steadily since Labor Day, said Dr. Greenberg at a Monitor breakfast yesterday.
``It's a very different environment when the president's approaching 50 [percent approval] than when the president is approaching 40 [percent],'' says Greenberg.
The public view of Democrats in general has risen since Congress went out of session earlier this month, he says.
One reason: Because Congress went out of session.
``I don't think we can overemphasize how important it is,'' he says, that people are not seeing Congress in action, or inaction, on the news each evening. Congress, he says, ``is the most unpopular institution in the country.''
So he was ``astonished'' that Republicans staged their signing of the Republican Party's ``Contract with America'' with over 300 GOP candidates on the steps of the US Capitol.
Republicans still beat Democrats in general polls for the first time since the early 1950s. But Republican leaders in Congress are ``enormously unpopular,'' says Greenberg, especially Newt Gingrich of Georgia, heir to the Republican leader's post next year. Among the one voter in three that can venture an opinion, Mr. Gingrich is viewed negatively by two voters to one. Opinion is about evenly split on Senate Republican leader Bob Dole and the Democratic leadership.
The public view of the president has a direct impact on elections to Congress, according to a model developed by a group of academic analysts, Greenberg says. In a midterm election, a president at 50 percent approval faces a loss of about 18 seats for his party in the House. Each percentage point up or down is worth another seat, according to the model. Greenberg forecasts a Democratic loss of about 25 to 30 seats.
The main problem with the president's popularity, Greenberg says, ``is the perception of the president's inability to make things happen in Washington.''
``He was elected to get things done.''
Clinton's approval rose most sharply after the passage last year of the North American Free Trade Agreement. And Congress's approval dropped to its lowest point recently when the House failed to pass a rule permitting a vote on the crime bill - which eventually passed in an altered form.