Unfocused Clinton sees his popularity plummet: After 100 days in office, the President's rating hovers around 55 per cent

WHAT MIGHT Bill Clinton have done differently to avert the precipitate slide in his popularity ratings during his first 100 days in office? Not running headlong into controversy about homosexuals in the military would have helped. Best of all, he might have arranged to survive an assassination attempt.

That, arguably, is what helped do the trick for Ronald Reagan, whose poll numbers also began to dip soon after the start of his first term, until a lunatic tried to shoot him dead in the front entrance of the Washington Hilton. By Day 100 his approval rating was back up to an enviable 68 per cent.

The first 100 days of the Reagan administration - all shootings aside, of course - was in fact adopted, at least informally, by the incoming Clinton team as a model for making swift progress, particularly in driving legislation through the US Congress.

The focus that President Reagan apparently managed to retain seems, however, to have eluded President Clinton.

'We knew the first day we sat in the White House what we were going to do for every day of the 100 days,' Mr Reagan's former deputy chief of staff boasted this week. 'There was a plan, and though some things didn't go as planned, of course, we stuck to to it.'

At just 55 per cent in most polls, President Clinton's 100-day rating does not come close to Mr Reagan's. And it is much worse than the 63 per cent recorded by the last Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, whose final electoral fate is hardly one President Clinton wants to emulate. Mr Carter won early favour partly because of his down-home style, exemplified by his turning down of the White House thermostats and sporting of over-sized sweaters.

The Carter presidency haunts Mr Clinton and already the comparisons are being made. The more unkind of the critics say that Mr Clinton displays the same obsessive need to involve himself in everything and attempt too much too quickly.

It is almost as if Mr Clinton might have written this entry in Mr Carter's diary, eight days after his inauguration in 1977: 'Everyone has warned me not to take on too many projects so early in the administration, but it's almost impossible for me to delay something that I see needs to be done'.

The last 'great' Democrat to reside in the White House was, of course, John Kennedy, who achieved a sky-high 100-day rating of 83 per cent. But historical scrutiny suggests that Kennedy may not have been entirely deserving of the early popularity.

True, in those first three months he launched the Peace Corps, which served to encapsulate the 'New Frontier' spirit Kennedy stood for. But he also authorised the disastrous 'Bay of Pigs' invasion of Cuba. In later reflections on the Bay of Pigs imbroglio, Arthur Schlesinger, special aide to Kennedy, wrote: 'The gay expectations of the hundred days were irrevocably over, the hour of euphoria past.' The new team, he went on, 'looked like a collection not only of imperialists but of ineffectual imperialists - and, what was worst of all, of stupid, ineffectual imperialists.'

If the Clinton White House has so far avoided disasters of that scale, it can - and does - also point out that it has at least been busy. They could, too, invite consideration of George Bush's first 100 days, which is still remembered as one of the most boring periods in the history of the United States. Legislation to resolve the savings and loans crisis was unveiled and President Bush negotiated humanitarian aid for the Nicaraguan Contras. And Dan Quayle, the Vice-President, went to Australia.

Neither Mr Clinton nor any of his modern predecessors had any hope of matching up to the hurricane-blast of activity achieved by Franklin Roosevelt when he took office in March 1933. With the country laid low by the Depression, he summoned Congress into emergency session and managed in short order to push through 15 relief and recovery laws, while holding 30 twice-weekly news conferences and giving the first 'fireside chats' on radio to the nation. Commentators compared his assault to Napoleon's escape from exile on Elba and the 100-day sweep across France that preceded his final defeat at Waterloo.

It was in this way that the rite of judging every President after his first 100 days was born. FDR may have been quietly cursed this week by the beleaguered President Bill Clinton.

----------------------------------------------------------------- PRESIDENTIAL RATINGS AFTER FIRST 100 DAYS ----------------------------------------------------------------- John Kennedy 83% Lyndon Johnson 79% Richard Nixon 62% Jimmy Carter 63% Ronald Reagan 68% George Bush 56% Bill Clinton 55% ----------------------------------------------------------------- Source: Gallup -----------------------------------------------------------------

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