Nation: Assessing a Presidency

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When Jimmy Carter stood before the 1976 Democratic National Convention and pledged "new leadership," he had never met a Democratic President or slept in the White House. The presidency was a legend from books, the Federal Government a classroom exercise, and Washington was a distant citadel of power that somehow had been corrupted by its residents. "It's time for the people to run the Government," Carter told his audience in that moment of warm, rising hope that filled New York's Madison Square Garden.

After greeting a Democratic President in the bathroom mirror every one of 1,299 mornings and sleeping in the White House at least 700 nights, Carter has indeed brought the nation a new kind of leadership. It is at least one promise that he kept among the 600 that he made during his remarkable march to the Oval Office.

But if Carter's years have been a true return to Government by popular will, filtered through the mind and ear of this earnest troubadour of the town meetings and televised press conferences, therein lies a huge and unexpected irony. The people do not like their own political creation.

Never in modern history has a President fallen to such murky depths in the national affection. George Gallup, the dean of the opinion samplers, who has been measuring voter sentiment since 1936, found just 15 days ago that Carter had only 21% approval, eclipsing Richard Nixon's 24% and Harry Truman's 23%, the other lows. In the data that Pollster Louis Harris has assembled is even worse news. On no single issue surveyed does Carter have a majority of voters who stand up and say they like him. Question the American people now about the hostages in Iran, our approach to the Soviets, the U.S. economy or unemployment, and they say that Jimmy Carter has failed them.

"He is like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, "sighed a Democratic Party official who has helped Carter over these years. "He is disappearing into the trees, and there is nothing left but the smile."

And, yet, he may not disappear. The complexities of this time in politics and the singular forces at work in the world may join to give Carter the four more years he now covets so much. In fact, he possibly could be ready to become the leader he has not been. It also could be too late for all that. By almost every measure of the opinion polls and also by precinct explorations of intrepid reporters, the message clatters in from sea to shining sea: this election is for Ronald Reagan to lose. And Jimmy Carter made it that way.

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