"ASHINGTON -- By now there is plenty of evidence that President Clinton and the Democrats are not getting credit for what, by all appearances, is a sound economy. Voters are sour and angry, and they're getting ready to send a message to many of the incumbents.
A visitor from Mars might ask what is going on. The economy is strong, generating jobs, and retailers are looking forward to a bright Christmas sales season. The U.S. budget deficit is narrowing, and inflation remains low.
In his recent trip abroad, Clinton stood in the Jordan Valley to witness a peace signing between Israel and Jordan. He successfully sent in troops to Haiti and, without bloodshed to U.S. forces, restored democracy. He ended a tense showdown with North Korea, and he stopped Saddam Hussein in his tracks in Iraq with a rapid deployment of U.S. power to the Persian Gulf.
Apparently, none of this has made much of an impression on the voters. The latest New York Times/CBS poll puts the president's approval rating at 43% and says voters are increasingly pessimistic about their future. An accompanying article in the Times said voters feel increasingly alienated from the political process and highly dissatisfied with Congress.
All kinds of explanations have been offered as to why voters are in such a surly mood. One is that because times are better now, the public can afford the luxury of carping at entrenched politicians instead of looking to them for answers.
But there is other evidence that the public just doesn't feel confident about what is going on in their lives. The New York Times/CBS poll found crime the number one concern of those surveyed, and 25% said they feared a close relative will lose a job within the next year.
In fact, the headlines continue to proclaim layoffs by major corporations eager to spruce up profits and stay lean against the competition. Moreover, surveys show that despite what economists say, many people still believe economic conditions are not good. Rising interest rates and a flat stock market add to the public sense of unease.
If Clinton can he faulted for anything, it is more the way he has done his job rather than what he has done. In focusing intensely on the big policy issues like health care and the budget, he comes across as a social engineer without charisma. Despite good intentions, he has failed to use his office to capture the public trust and build a sense of mission, a feeling of traveling together into the dawn.
There is a sense of frenzied wheelspinning in the Clinton presidency, but not a sense of inspiration. Clinton has put his trust in brainstorming and compromises rather than leading by instinct and wisdom. And poll after poll shows that many people just don't trust him, that his integrity and values are suspect.
Winning the public's trust from the White House podium is no easy task, and presidents don't always succeed. Ronald Reagan won popularity by taking out a lot of debt to finance a passing sense of prosperity. Clinton doesn't have that option.