Wall Street slump leaves the feel-good President exposed

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WHEN PRESIDENT Bill Clinton set out for Moscow, the main concern in Washington was the uncertainty that awaited him in Russia. By the time he arrived, 12 hours later, the weight of uncertainty had shifted to Washington. Layer by layer, it seemed, the almost magical protection that Bill Clinton has enjoyed for the best part of his six-year presidency was peeling away.

While Mr Clinton was in the air, the United States stock market suffered its second biggest points falls. The Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, marked the return from the summer recess by lashing the President's personal conduct as a "tragic example" to America's youth. And one of the President's former mistresses, Gennifer Flowers, went on television to describe their relationship as a prologue to his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and call on him to resign.

Yesterday, during a speech at Moscow University, President Clinton sought to reassure US markets that the overall state of the US economy was sound. Reiterating his support for reforms in Russia, Mr Clinton said: "I want to reiterate the point I think is important for Russia, for America, for every country: we believe our fundamental economic policy is sound."

While Mr Clinton was expressing the natural concern of any national leader for his country's prosperity, he also has a personal stake in America's economic well-being. For months, the burgeoning stock market paralleled the popularity of the President. It was Mr Clinton's stewardship - even if that stewardship amounted to the Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan's gnomic non- intervention - that was credited with fostering America's boom.

The question that hovered in the background was how far Mr Clinton's popularity depended on the economic feel-good factor - rising share prices, low inflation, falling unemployment. America may be about to find out.

Personally, Mr Clinton has always been cautious about claiming the credit for the recent boom; balancing the budget was about as far as he would boast on his own account. Sound economic management, however, was frequently cited by voters as their reason for not being over-concerned about the "character" issue. The President is doing a good job as President, the public said through the polls; his private life is a matter for himself and his wife and daughter.

The coming days and weeks will show whether Mr Clinton's popular support can hold up if harder economic times threaten.

The idea that Mr Clinton's popularity depended on the stock market was never completely convincing to all. The President's political success also owed much to his personal charm. The question could be posed the other way round: might a fall in the President's popularity precipitate a decline of confidence in the market?

It is a measure of how rapidly the climate has changed that Americans were already starting to ask this question yesterday, even to dismiss it. The Democratic Party leader in the Senate, Tom Daschle, said it was too early to link the market downturn to Mr Clinton's popular support.