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President gets a surge of goodwill


WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton's up-and-down first year winds to its end, an extensive new bipartisan survey shows that a president who craves recognition for a job well done is finally getting some credit -- his approval rating has risen to a respectable 57 percent.

"The American people finally think this president is an effective leader," said Celinda Lake, one of two pollsters involved in the polling project. "Bill Clinton has proven he can get things done."

In addition, and apparently because of Mr. Clinton's leadership, Democrats in general now fare as well as or better than Republicans in the public's mind on a host of issues traditionally cornered by Republicans. These include managing the economy, reducing the federal budget deficit and leading the war on crime.

Ms. Lake, a Democratic Party pollster, and Republican pollster Edward A. Goeas III made their presentation yesterday as part of "Battleground '94," a continuation of a joint project they began in the 1992 campaign cycle.

The two sides pool their resources on gathering data, and then engage in a good-natured give-and-take as they interpret the data to favor their political viewpoints.

The product tends to be a detailed snapshot of American public opinion at any given moment -- and the picture that emerged yesterday literally brought a smile to Mr. Clinton's face.

The president was visibly pleased when asked about it at a quickie White House news conference. And when asked about Ross Perot's steeply declining approval rating, he quipped: "You ought to ask the vice president about that." It was a reference to the debate between Al Gore and Mr. Perot over the North American Free Trade Agreement -- an opportunity that Mr. Perot is widely viewed as having botched.

"The American people are . . . just beginning to feel some benefit of the economic changes brought on by the lower interest rates and the higher investment," Mr. Clinton said. Citing his success in ramming NAFTA and a new handgun control measure through Congress, the president added: "I think the American people want results, and they also want an administration that will take on the tough problems and try to see them through."

"I'd rather have us start the year slow and finish it strong than the other way around," Jeff Eller, director of White House media relations, said at a White House Christmas party.

The last major Battleground '94 poll, in early October, had Mr. Clinton's approval rating at only 47 percent -- only barely ahead of his disapproval rating. The president's disapproval rating -- 37 percent -- remains relatively high, however, suggesting, Mr. Goeas said, that American public opinion is "polarized" regarding Mr. Clinton.

"His disapproval rating is still double what it was when he came into office," Mr. Goeas said.

The survey, despite its overall good news for the president, contained a number of other significant findings, some of which are warning flags to the administration.

* In an open-ended question about what was the "No. 1 problem" facing the nation today, only 6 percent of those surveyed mentioned health care or health care insurance.

* Crime, at 26 percent, was by far the most cited issue in this category -- the economy was a distant second at 9 percent -- suggesting that Americans feel vulnerable to being victimized right now.

In addition, an overwhelming majority of Americans do not identify gun control or more police -- the Clinton administration's preferred solutions to crime -- as the answer. The voters favor both making the criminal justice system tougher and providing early childhood prevention measures.

"The public's view is that if you're in jail, you don't have access to your Uzi," said Ms. Lake, who added that voters are "outraged" over the continued release of violent felons who have served only part of their terms.

"Americans have rejected the concept of rehabilitation," Mr. Goeas said.

* While Ross Perot's positive numbers have dropped through the floorboards, he remains popular with his hard-core supporters -- the 19 percent who voted for him in 1992.

* The one area in which Mr. Clinton's support is not improving -- and in which he ranks far behind congressional Republicans -- is foreign policy. Defense Secretary Les Aspin, who resigned yesterday, had a stunningly low approval rating of 19 percent. And only 29 percent of those surveyed had a favorable impression of Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher. With Mr. Clinton ready to embark on a crucial eight-day European trip next month, these figures caused concern at the White House.

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