Americans Flunk Clinton 101; If Business Conditions and Job Growth Are as Robust as the White House Says They Are, Why Do Nearly Half of All Americans Disapprove of President Clinton's Handling of the Economy?

Article excerpt

With economic growth rising by a moderate 3.5 percent in the first quarter, unemployment falling to 6 percent and inflation remaining below 2.5 percent, the polls should show that a majority of Americans give the president good marks on the economy. Among all the problems he faces -- from Whitewater to a sexual harassment suit -- economics would seem to be his best issue. Yet nearly every poll shows that 48 percent or more of all Americans surveyed are critical of the state of the economy and the way Clinton is managing economic policy. During the first week of July, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 42 percent believe the economy will get worse, while 39 percent think it will improve.

The voters may be ahead of the economists and politicians in Washington, since there is growing evidence that the economy indeed is slowing down and will continue to do so for the remainder of this year and into the next -- a result of the combined braking effect of higher interest rates, tax increases and reduced consumer spending. The long-term outlook isn't much better. The president's Council of Economic Advisers has forecast that real growth will average around 2.6 percent a year for the remainder of this decade, significantly less than the 2.8 percent average growth rate of the 1980s.

"The economy's problems are evident in the current expansion, which has been weak and could soon end," says Robert Shapiro of the Democratic Leadership Council, who helped design Clinton's economic proposals during the 1992 campaign. "No one can be certain when the current expansion will naturally end, but it probably has at least four more quarters to go."

Political analysts say the president's poor scores on the economy are the result of a number of factors, including a growing fear among voters that their jobs will be affected. There's a sense of loss of security among workers about what's happening with the economy now and in the future," says Bruce Blakeman of the Wirthlin Group, a Republican polling company. …