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Every time the president refers to the economy's growing strength, his popularity seems to fade, says Albert Sindlinger, the economic researcher whose staff telephones 4,000 heads of households a month.

Although it was even worse a month ago, Sindlinger's latest rating for the president was just 49.9 percent positive and 33.2 percent negative. That negative rating, he said, projected out to 55.1 million people.Such low ratings have mystified Clinton supporters and the media and in some quarters have produced a sympathetic portrait of a president gallantly doing what is right in spite of the consequences to his popularity.

Sindlinger, an octogenarian who derives his opinions from listening to ordinary Americans, says he isn't at all mystified. Those ratings fell, he says, because the people don't believe the president.

Clinton isn't lying or even drawing too rosy a picture from the evidence, Sindlinger says. The president and his advisers really believe the economy is booming.

It isn't, and the people know it, snaps Sindlinger, who night and day, decade after decade, has been surrounded by vast piles of numbers from his research.

"The people know better," says Sindlinger. "The public laughs." A cynical laugh, he concedes.

The president, for instance, calls attention to what he says are 4.3 million jobs created in the past 19 months and to the fact that the jobless rate is down to 6.1 percent.

To Sindlinger, that's a lot of statistical nonsense. He says the true jobless rate, based on his polling, is closer to 10 percent. That 4.3 million figure, he says, includes 2.5 million phantom jobs.

Phantom jobs? "Computer creations," he says. Though in his calculations these jobs don't exist, he says they are counted by the government as adding $75 billion in wages and salaries to the gross domestic product.

Is it possible that such errors could occur in official statistics? Not only in this instance but in many others, says Sindlinger, and he says he has pointed them out many times.

For instance, Sindlinger explains that a "bias factor" or corrective is included in Bureau of Labor Statistics job calculations.

In the early 1980s, he says, that factor properly measured the rate of new job formations. But, he continues, that was because there had been tax cuts, and tax cuts stimulate the economy and job formations.

For the past four years, however, the economy has been caught in a structural change in which large corporations seek profits not only by expansion but by means of mass layoffs of workers.

By early 1992, he says, the bias factor was adding only 6,000 phantom jobs a month, but by January 1993, the number had risen to 90,000. And by August 1994, the total per month had leaped to 155,000 jobs.

Sindlinger, who has unlimited faith that truth emerges from listening to the people - something, he suggests, the government should consider - insists the economy is operating poorly.

"And the people know it," he says.