AS A BAPTIST, BILL CLINTON once said, he believes in redemption. But unfortunately for the president, many of his fellow Americans do not share his belief. They do not forgive Clinton for past misadventures or accept the claim that he has redeemed himself.

Driving south through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida recently, my wife and I listened on our car radio to one talk show after another. Many were hosted by vehement right-wingers, such as Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy, who thrive on virulent hostility to the president.After Rep. Bob Dornan, the fiery California conservative, excoriated Clinton for his efforts to dodge service in Vietnam a quarter century ago, the airwaves were filled with calls from Americans who shared Dornan's view.

One caller said that Clinton wouldn't dare set foot in an American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars post because veterans remain furious with him for escaping service in Vietnam and pushing admission of gays in the military.

New Republic columnist Fred Barnes, appearing before a conservative forum two weeks ago, contended that conservatives dominate the radio airwaves because there is "no audience" in America for liberal talk shows. That may sound like conservative hyperbole, but it isn't far off the mark. A survey last year showed 70 percent of talk shows are hosted by conservatives.

In the era of Clinton's presidency, the quickest way to diminish public support for a policy is to identify it with liberalism or Clintonism.

Of course, not all Americans are disenchanted with Clinton. In current polls, he has an approval rating of close to 50 percent.

But it is difficult to recall a recent president who generated more animosity and distrust than Clinton. He is constantly reviled and rarely praised although, with little or no help from Republicans, he has lowered the deficit, reduced the size of government, presided over a growing economy that has produced 5 million new jobs and won passage of important anti-crime legislation.

In last year's campaign, Republicans scored heavily with their charge that Clinton and the Democrats had passed history's biggest tax increase. Few defenders explained that the tax boost pertained only to the 2 percent of Americans who are the wealthiest or that Republicans had proved wrong when they predicted in 1993 that it would produce a recession.

Now Clinton, in competition with congressional Republicans, is seeking a tax cut that could improve his standing with the public while sabotaging his laudable efforts to reduce the national debt.

But each time Clinton begins to gain popularity, he becomes embroiled in a fiasco that reduces his standing with the public. The current controversy stems from White House mishandling of the nomination of Dr. Henry Foster to be surgeon general.

Clinton never will enjoy the sustained popularity of Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan. But he should not constantly be judged on events that took place long before he entered the White House.

Through his good works - and he has some good works to his credit - he should be able to redeem himself in the eyes of the public.