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Who Padlocked The Honeymoon Suite?

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Triumphs for Presidents, Bill Clinton is learning, tend to be short-lived. Less than two months ago, a boffo State of the Union address won Clinton hosannas for his economic program. Now, the President is hearing the unmistakable sound of Bronx cheers. His polls are dipping, his negatives are rising, and there's growing speculation that the Administration's health-care-reform plan may just make things a lot worse. To complicate matters, issues from Bosnia to the cult debacle in Waco, Tex., have clouded his young Presidency.

How unpopular is the President? A new survey shows that, for the first time, the percentage of voters who like the way Clinton is handling his job has fallen below 50% (table). His 49% approval rating is far below the support attained by Presidents Bush (58%), Reagan (67%), and Carter (67%) at the same point in their terms. And in a new Wirthlin Group poll, the percentage of Americans who believe the country is "on the wrong track" jumped from 50% on Mar. 22 to 59% two weeks later.

Clinton's political advisers are laboring to explain away the trends. According to White House pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, Clinton's burst of domestic activism, from his "reverse-Reaganomics" budget to his stance on gays in the military, was bound to alienate some voters. "We're dealing with a polarized electorate," he says. "That's a function of a President who wants to do things."

CHIPS AND TRIMS. But Clintonites also admit that relentless Republican attacks, which have stalled his economic stimulus plan in the Senate, have taken their toll. Although the GOP risks tarring itself as the party of gridlock, the assault on Clinton's plan as a "tax and spend" policy has raised the President's negatives. "The Republicans have done something totally unprecedented," says Clinton adviser Paul Begala. "They have given him none of the traditional honeymoon."

Even supporters acknowledge that the President may have been too cautious in his approach to the budget deficit. By offering a plan that merely trims federal programs, Clinton failed to win over many of the 19 million Ross Perot voters. "People would like to see some more seriousness," says political scientist Samuel L. Popkin of the University of California at San Diego. "He could have gone farther." With Perot acting as a stern deficit watchdog, many of the independent voters who might be attracted to Clinton's policies are remaining standoffish. "There is this clutch of voters loaded for bear and ready to say 'no,' " says Bruce Kuklick, a University of Pennsylvania historian.

The high command at the White House believes that a whirlwind of activity will convince skeptical voters that Clinton is committed to change. Hardly a week goes by without a Presidential speech or trip to highlight another initiative--from education reform to defense conversion, from national service to a timber summit. But Clinton's frenetic scurrying around has kept him from concentrating on the most important issue of all: the economy. "Bill Clinton is doing too much too quick, and he's losing his focus," says GOP pollster Ed Goeas. "That is starting to make people question whether anything will get done."

BAD BOUNCE? Depending on which camp you listen to, the planned May 17 unveiling of the Administration's health plan will either mark the revival of Clinton's political fortunes or the acceleration of a long decline. Although the plan will surely feature tax increases and restrictions on medical choice, Clintonites are convinced that voters are ready for bold measures.

The key to success, Clinton strategists say, is persuading the middle class that guaranteed health security is worth making sacrifices for. "When President Clinton called for higher taxes in February, he didn't drop 10 points, which is what you would normally expect," Greenberg says. "I suspect that when we present our health-care program, the same thing will happen. After voters see that this guy really wants to change things for the better, his numbers will actually bounce up."

Maybe. But Republicans doubt the bounce will last long. They expect health care to be a major downer for the President. "Eventually, his numbers will nosedive," says Republican pollster Anthony Fabrizio. He thinks the public's mood will shift after the GOP attacks the plan's reliance on "big spending, big government, and more regulation."

Even if a determined Clinton lobbying blitz wins passage of major elements of a reform program this year--a big if--the Republicans are poised to strike. Clinton has promised not only to provide universal health coverage but to save business and taxpayers billions in the process. "There's a clear expectation that health-care costs will be brought down," says the GOP's Goeas. "If costs are still rising at the next election, he will have failed."

None of this carping fazes Clinton, who, just three months into his term, is acting like a man running out of time. The way his poll numbers are going, he may be on to something.Susan B. Garland, with Lee Walczak, in Washington

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