Despite legislative wins, Clinton's popularity wanes


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, weary after fighting for his crime bill for 14 straight days, headed to Martha's Vineyard last night, hoping that while he relaxes with his family, the public will decide he's not doing such a bad job after all.

This year, as the nation's economy has remained strong, as America remained at peace and as the president painstakingly made progress on most of his legislative agenda, Mr. Clinton's popularity has, paradoxically, dipped. And dipped. And dipped.

The latest public opinion polls show Mr. Clinton's "approval rating" at just below 40 percent. This is an ominously low number for a sitting president, and, in the world of politics, implies a vulnerability that others are quick to exploit.

The day after the crime bill passage, for instance, such disparate political institutions as the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and the liberal African-American leader Jesse L. Jackson accused Mr. Clinton of putting short-term political considerations ahead of humanitarian concerns and America's long-term interests with regard to Cuba.

In a breakfast meeting with reporters yesterday, Mr. Jackson also denounced the Clinton administration-backed crime bill as racist and overly punitive, and said he was not ruling out a presidential challenge to Mr. Clinton in 1996.

Asked to grade the president, Mr. Jackson said, "I give an A- for rhetoric but a D for delivery."

Referring to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, Mr. Jackson added, "This administration is increasingly becoming a dream-buster."

As the razor-thin margins on the crime bill votes suggested, no one in Congress fears Mr. Clinton, either -- and this includes Democrats. Worse, numerous Democratic candidates in the West and the South have acknowledged in the past few days that they don't want the president to campaign for them in the fall.

"I don't intend to ask President Clinton to come out here. Why be cute about it?" said Kathy Karpan, Democratic candidate for governor of Wyoming. "Of course he's a liability."

Even the president's staunchest Democratic allies on Capitol Hill conceded this week that the president's version of health care reform, launched with such fanfare a year ago, should be given its last rites.

For their part, Republican leaders in Congress expressed anger at being rolled on the crime bill by a White House-manufacturered coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans -- and vowed revenge after the November midterm elections.

All this is quite a change from just nine months ago, when the president ushered the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress, promised a new era of bipartisanship and enjoyed an approval rating around 55 percent.

Asked at a lunch with reporters yesterday what went wrong, White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta launched into a passionate defense of his boss.

"For 12 years, people saw that both parties were talking about the problems in this country, talking about the deficit, talking about the economy, talking about education, talking about health care -- and doing nothing. Nothing!" Mr. Panetta said. "The reason he was elected was not to maintain his popularity in the country. The reason he was elected was to deal with these problems."

Mr. Panetta added that every time the president tried to tackle a problem, he also tackled powerful groups that had a stake in fighting reform.

"I mean, there is a reason why these problems were not dealt with," he said. "It's because each of these problems involve major special interests that will attack you and that will go after you if you try and change the status quo."

As an example, he pointed out that estimates of the money spent on the advertising and lobbying efforts to savage the Clinton administration health plan have reached $120 million -- three times what can legally be spent in a presidential election.

So what's the answer?

Long-term, Mr. Panetta has counseled everyone in the White House, including the president and the first lady, to be patient. The public, he says, will judge the president by results, not opinion polls. And if Mr. Clinton keeps ringing up legislative victories -- even if they are by the skin of his teeth -- he will have an impressive record of achievement to run on.

The short-term strategy is less painstaking. It involves forgetting about Washington and trying to enjoy a reprise of the golf courses and other delights of Martha's Vineyard, a picturesque resort island off the coast of Massachusetts.

Last year, after another grueling summer, Mr. Clinton went to the Vineyard and saw his approval ratings rise. This led some White House officials to conclude that the president was just a tad overexposed. But it wasn't until this summer, when Mr. Panetta came aboard, that the garrulous president has allowed his public appearances to be rationed.

"He's ready for some serious down time," said press secretary Dee Dee Myers, who is making the trip herself.

"He plans to relax, read, spend time with his family. He's looking forward to spending a lot of time with Chelsea, which is their annual sort of tradition, and I think he'll probably try to play a little golf and do a little swimming and just stay out of the way."

Recent history suggests that's not such a fanciful strategy -- perhaps if the Cuban refugee crisis quiets down, his approval ratings will even be higher when he returns.

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