WASHINGTON -- In the latest opinion poll made for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, voters were asked if President Clinton should veto any health care reform bill that did not provide for universal coverage. Fully 65 percent said that he should.
It would be a mistake, of course, to draw too many inferences from a single poll finding. The question defined neither universal coverage nor the funding mechanisms that would be required to achieve it.
But it did suggest that the president might find a receptive audience by sticking to his guns on the veto threat that he delivered in outlining his plan to Congress last Sept. 22.
This political reality may have little or nothing to do with health care reform specifically, however. If there is one factor that leaps out of the data charting Clinton's loss of support with the public over the last few months, it is the perception of him as a president who has not demonstrated sure-handed leadership of the nation. That is a perception, political professionals in both parties agree, that Clinton has allowed to grow by never taking a stand on some issue, popular or not, and then sticking to it.
On the contrary, the view in the Washington political community of Clinton as a president who can be rolled has now rippled out to the electorate at large.
The dimensions of the president's political weakness are clear enough. That same NBC-Wall Street Journal survey found his approval rating down to 49 percent, compared with 44 percent disapproval, this month. In May the comparable figures were 57-37 and in June 52-39, so the trend is obvious.
At the same time, a poll made for the Los Angeles Times found an even more politically threatening figure. Only 37 percent of voters said they would vote to re-elect Clinton now, compared with 50 percent who would prefer someone else.
That finding needs some qualification. There are always more voters who favor a generic "someone else" than are willing to support a specific opponent such as, for example, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole. But among political strategists, a "re-elect number" under 50 percent is always a warning sign for any incumbent.
What all these figures suggest is that Clinton is in a position in which he must force voters to take a fresh look, something that may be accomplished only by some drastic action on his part. Vetoing an unsatisfactory health care plan would be such an action in light of the emphasis the president has put on the issue.
The obvious danger for Clinton in a veto is that it would be interpreted by the press and politicians as a "defeat" for him, a demonstration that he cannot bring even a Democratic-controlled Congress along with him on a critical issue. But it is reasonable to wonder whether most voters outside the Beltway are as concerned with "winning" and "losing" as are the politicians and reporters here.
On the contrary, there is good reason to believe that many Americans would respond positively to a show of strength by the president, whether or not they agreed on a particular issue. One of Ronald Reagan's great political assets as president was his ability to make voters accept his firm positions even on issues on which most of them disagreed with him.
As a practical matter, the health care issue has evolved in a way in which Clinton may not have a clear opportunity to show similar strength. The final bill, if any is ever passed, is being written by Democratic leaders in constant consultation with the White House. That has become necessary because it has become clear that the president's plan cannot win a majority either with the public or Congress, even though most voters agree with such basic precepts as universal coverage and an employer mandate.
The goal now is to find a compromise that the president can declare meets his requirements and thus constitutes a "victory" for him and a triumph over gridlock. The danger there is clear. If the bill goes too far in trying to accommodate the opposition, it may be obvious that it falls far short of that original Clinton demand for universal coverage. In that case, the Republicans would not be reluctant to remind everyone of the way Clinton brandished his veto pen last September.
But the president needs to demonstrate that he can be pushed only so far. The willingness of the voters to accept a veto may offer him just such an opportunity.