America can not afford another bad presidency

MILWAUKEE—President Clinton finds himself today in precisely the same political position that President Bush was in 12 months before Clinton defeated him for re-election.

That is not a prediction; it is a simple statement of fact. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last week gave Clinton exactly the same 59 percent to 39 percent ratio of approval to disapproval in his handling of the presidency as the same poll had given Bush at the end of October 1991.

More important, the two polls showed nearly identical measures of his pessimism about the country’s prospects. In the late 1991 survey, only 26 percent of those polled said they thought things in this country were generally going in the right direction, while 71 percent said the country had gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track. In last weeks’s poll, that basic measure of pessimism and optimism was uncannily the same: 27 percent hopeful; 71 percent apprehensive.

What Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin told me back in the autumn of 1991 about the paradox of Bush’s support is what must be of concern to Clinton’s political strategists today: “Unless he does something to change the equation, the lower number will inevitably pull down the higher one.”

His meaning was plain. Over time, voters will not continue to support a president when they think the country is going to hell.

In the fall of 1991, Bush was eight months past the peak of popularity and national optimism that followed the quick end of the Persian Gulf War. Economic worries were eroding public confidence in the country’s prospects, and before long they would undercut Bush’s personal support. Last week, five months past the glow of Clinton’s election victory, a president once again was feeling the undertow of declining faith in the nation’s future. The right-path/wrong-track ratio has not fallen as fast as it did in 1991 only because it never rose very high.

The meaning of those poll figures became strikingly clear in a round-table discussion that Dan Balz of The Washington Post and I had last week with a dozen voters here, following similar conversations I had a week earlier during two nights of door-knocking in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood.

During all those interviews, I failed to find a single voter who had cast a ballot for Bust or independent Ross Perot last November and now said anything like, “You know, Bill Clinton’s turning out to be a heck of a lot better president than I ever expected.”

On the other hand, it was no problem at all finding people who said they had voted for Clinton last November—often with fingers crossed or because they “saw no alternative” and “wanted a change”—but now express strong disenchantment with his performance.

David Smalley, a computer specialist for the American Greeting Card Company and Perot voter in Ohio, called Clinton “the least experienced president since I’ve been voting. He has good intentions. I think he wants to change things for the better. But he doesn’t have the political strength to get things through. …What they need to do is get spending under control, but they won’t be able to do it. They can’t say no to all the lobbyists, so in the end, they’ll just increase taxes and spend it all.”

The message I heard in Lakewood and here was well-substantiated in the findings of the national Post-ABC poll. Particularly worrisome, from Clinton’s perspective, were the answers of those like Smalley who said they had voted for Perot last year. Winning the support of the Perot 19 percent has to be the single most important political objective for Clinton between now and 1996.

But the poll shows that Perot voters disapprove Clinton’s handling of the presidency by a 58-39 percent margin. Only one in five Perot voters thinks he has accomplished “a good amount” in the early months of his term. Worse, 55 percent of them say that “beneath it all, Clinton is an old-style, tax-and-spend liberal,” while only 42 percent agree with the alternative statement that Clinton is “a new-style Democrat who will be careful with the people’s money.”

More than eight out of 10 voters say Clinton has not gone far enough to reduce federal spending or cut the deficit, and three out of four think he has gone too far in raising taxes on average Americans but not far enough in taxing the rich.

In last year’s campaign, Clinton showed a remarkable capacity to reposition himself on issues and to rebound politically. Everything out here among the voters says he has to do both—and soon.

Clinton entered office with a shaky political base, especially for a president with an ambitious agenda of change. He must rebuild and expand that base now, or the mood of national pessimism that sank George Bush a year ago will drag him under too. And America cannot afford another failed presidency.