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WHO WANTS TO BE PRESIDENT? FEW, IT SEEMS

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More than half the nation's parents, it turns out, no longer beam lovingly at their newborn infants and hope that he or she may someday become president.

Great chunks of the American dream have been fading away in our complex, deficit-riddled world. But of all our treasured fancies, the notion had seemed cast in stone that everyone wants either to be president or to rear one.Yet a Washington Post-ABC News poll produces the news that 52 percent of those surveyed would rather go to jail for a week than get stuck with being president. Less stress! No insults from talking heads! Regular meals!

Even taking into account that a president serves a four-year rather than one-week sentence, this is an appalling development.

The survey further reports that 56 percent felt that the problems we face today are so large no president can do much to solve them.

What is going on here?

Is there growing sympathy after all for the struggles of a president whose approval ratings are scraping along at a distressingly low 43 percent?

Fat chance.

President Clinton, however, should eventually get off the hook a bit if the institution of the presidency and declining economic and social conditions are perceived as sharing the blame for his political troubles.

Voters seem to be acknowledging the sheer difficulty of addressing festering national problems in an era in which politics are fragmented, the government has no money and powerful entrenched interests resist serious change. This reflects a general cynicism toward Washington; in a recent Los Angeles Times Poll, only 13 percent had any faith in government's ability to do the right thing.

Voter pessimism is heightened by the unrealistically high expectations Clinton generated before he actually sat down to make decisions in the White House. There was never any way he could live up to all that he promised, even had he enjoyed a smoother and less gaffe-filled first few months.

The feeling that there isn't a lot the federal government can or should be doing to redress what's wrong with the country took root with Ronald Reagan, who argued that government IS the problem. He cut taxes on the premise that starving the federal treasury would lead to greatly reduced domestic services.

Reagan had unique advantages that made his anti-government case persuasive. His large victories gave him the right to claim a mandate, his demand for low taxes was popular, and he had the Cold War boogeyman around which to build a consensus. But tax cuts combined with high military spending led to terrifying deficits, neglected domestic needs mounted and the Cold War collapsed.

His successors, without suitable mandates, were stuck with the ensuing muddle. President Bush threw up his hands and did very little. Voters were not pleased.

But a majority of voters aren't pleased with the way Clinton is trying to reduce the deficits, expand governmental responsibilities and revise political priorities, either.

The radical swings in public perception and presidential popularity that Bush experienced may have become a normal price of the presidency.

Clinton gets a brief respite this week as he meets with other leaders of the major industrial democracies in Japan although the conference is not expected to produce much.

But he will return to the unchanged reality of his weak political position. His low poll numbers, his narrow margin of Senate support and the controversial nature of today's major issues mean a constant struggle ahead.

He faces firm opposition to his economic priorities from Republicans in Congress, who are numerically strong enough to thwart him if he has less than united Democratic support. He got not a single Republican vote in the House or Senate for his economic program; a GOP Senate filibuster killed his jobs stimulus plan. Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole predicts that the compromise economic plan that emerges from a Senate-House conference committee - no matter what it is - will not get any GOP votes either.

The Republicans are aided and abetted by Ross Perot, whose large following contributes to the chorus of criticism directed Clinton's way. Together, the GOP and the Perot folks are outshouting the Democrats.

This does not mean that all is lost. Permanent partisan unity is difficult for Republicans as well as Democrats to maintain. House Republicans, for instance, recently voted in larger numbers than Democrats for the president's space station. But such bipartisanship will not happen automatically; it will take leadership on Clinton's part.

The test ahead for Clinton is to demonstrate that he controls the job, not the reverse. This requires fewer haircut flaps and more congressional victories.

His popularity will continue to rise and fall with his successes and failures, of which there are likely to be plenty of both. Before very long, however, it should become clear whether he is a victim of his time or whether he is destined to shape it.