The Problem With The President

JACKIE TEDRICK WAS FEELING WISTFUL about the 1992 Clinton-Gore bus tour. She was one of about 10,000 people who gathered at the old Illinois Statehouse in Vandalia on the evening of July 21 to cheer the Democratic ticket on the last leg of its eight-state barnstorming trip. The former capitol where Abe Lincoln began his political career was drenched in television lights. "It reminded me of the night I went to Springfield to see Jack Kennedy. Electricity was in the air," said Tedrick, 61, who works for the state's department of veterans affairs. She still likes Clinton, she said, and she thought he was "really trying." But the "press won't give him a chance," Tedrick scolded. "They nit-pick all the time at what he does. Keep your mouth shut for one day!" She said later, "I'm floundering. I'm searching for honest politicians, and I'm having a lot of difficulty."

That prompted the others in the Vandalia motel conference room to erupt. "An honest politician is an oxymoron!" exclaimed one. "We've got the best politicians money can buy!" said another. The group of 11, brought together last week for NEWSWEEK by Princeton Survey Research Associates to plumb the reasons behind Clinton's lack of popularity, seemed more disappointed than angry. Their contempt was aimed mostly at the press, other politicians and Washington in general. "I think we expect too much from the president," said Bob Bauer, 56, a retired Motorola salesman who voted for Clinton.

Nonetheless, it was clear from their comments that the character attacks on Clinton had stuck. Asked what came to mind at the mention of his name, the group answered with epithets like "draft dodger" and "playboy" and murmurs of "weak, weak." "Too many of those holdover hippie ideas," one participant complained. They found the president insincere on television. Bill Ogen 58, a corrections guard who voted for George Bush, said that when Clinton speaks, the words "are not coming from him or his heart." Mark Abendroth, 33, a Ross Perot voter, recalled reading a recent article about Clinton's days as governor of Arkansas. "He'd tell this group today what they wanted to hear. Tomorrow, he wouldn't necessarily follow through on it. He's a salesman." No one could offer a coherent explanation of what Clinton stood for. "I don't feel like he has any confidence in himself. Could Hillary, being so smart, be a part of that?" wondered Ruby Hausmann, 49, a Bush Republican. "I like what she's doing," countered Tedrick, though she added that the First Lady "probably scares a lot of people." Several of the men nodded.

The group, a mix of farmers and small business people, seemed impervious to good news. The front page of that day's St. Louis Post-Dispatch bannered a story announcing that unemployment in the area (Vandalia is about 50 miles northeast of the city) was at a 20-year low. Another story heralded the historic Middle East peace accord. But in the motel conference room, the talk was all of society's moral decline. Except for the crime bill--which most doubted would have any effect on crime--there was no mention of Clinton's legislative achievements, like NAFTA or cutting the deficit. Standing up to Saddam Hussein over Kuwait was a no-brainer, said Raymond Frakes, 83, a retired soil conservationist. "Any president would have had to do the same thing." The intervention in Haiti? A political favor to the Black Caucus in Congress, scoffed a panelist.

The group regarded Congress as Clinton's principal obstacle to change. Fred Williams, 46, a police officer, offered health-care reform as an example of what Clinton was up against. He played an industry lobbyist with his hand under the table. "Now Mr. Congressman," Williams intoned, "here's a hundred grand . . . I want you to filibuster this. I don't care if you talk until you're dry. We'll bring you some water."

The participants complained that they were at once overwhelmed by a torrent of news and not given the information they needed to make informed judgments. Diane Forsee, 47, a Perot Republican, said she had to rely on talk radio for "facts" the main-stream press overlooked.

The moderator asked if there was any hope for Clinton. "I think he just lost the people," said Ruby Hausmann. "I feel a little sad." There were sighs and silence. Others suggested that if Clinton could come up with a real plan -- and stick to it -- he might have a chance. Bob Bauer said hopefully that Clinton was "learning quite rapidly . . . He might turn some people around in a year or two." But Tedrick seemed to speak for more of the group when she said that any real progress would happen "at home"--by people having faith in God and taking control of their own lives.

Most voters flunk a true-false test about the state of the economy and the specifics of Clinton's domestic agenda.

TRUE FALSE The U.S. economy is still in recession 59% 38% The deficit has gone down since Clinton became president 34% 54% Taxes on the middle class have gone up since Clinton became president 65% 24% The new crime bill devotes more money to prisons than to social programs 51% 25% Clinton's health-care reforms would have put more limits on people's choice of doctors 69% 22%

Changes his mind on issues too much 60% Seems confident and self-assured 69% Keeps improving in the way he handles his job 51% Pays too much attention to special interests 53% Displays good judgment in a crisis 53% Stands for family values 51% Can't always believe what he says 65% His personal life and past financial dealings make it hard for him to be a good leader and role model 47%