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The Times Poll : Most Endorse Reagan Talk but See Harm

March 09, 1987|DAVID LAMB | Times Staff Writer

President Reagan's national address on the Iran- contra scandal was favorably received by a vast majority of Americans, helping to neutralize the damage done to his Administration by the Tower Commission report, but voters believe that his presidency still may carry permanent scars of the scandal, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

His popularity remains high despite the critical tone of the report, with 80% of Americans liking Reagan personally and 52% approving of his job performance, although when asked if they think the President will make the reforms he promised in his speech last Wednesday, seven in 10 Americans said that they will have to wait and see.

For the most part, the public said that it is willing to give Reagan the benefit of the doubt, and his speech appeared to calm the nation's mood, even if it did not defuse the scandal itself. By a margin of 4 to 1, respondents to the telephone poll said that Reagan made a good speech, and four in seven found the President persuasive and truthful.

A wide majority, 62% to 30%, believe that he can fulfill his promise to adopt a more hands-on style of governing, the poll showed.

The survey, conducted by Times Poll Director I .A. Lewis, was a follow-up to a similar poll two weeks ago, before the report of the presidential commission headed by former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) and Reagan's speech, in which 2,346 people were queried about the Iran-contra affair. This past weekend, in an attempt to measure the net effect of the report and Reagan's response to it, The Times contacted 1,566 of the same respondents polled and asked them many of the same questions posed in February.

One significant difference reflected by the two polls was that the number of Americans who think Reagan keeps himself informed about the complicated problems of government fell after the Tower report was issued by eight points, to 67%. At the same time, those who think he is not familiar with those issues rose nine points, to 30%. Respondents who believe--as the report said--that important decisions have been made in the White House without the President's knowledge jumped 16 points, to 61%.

'Image Tarnished'

"What Americans seem to be saying is that they still like President Reagan but they're going to monitor his performance much more closely his last two years," Lewis said. "Undeniably his image has been tarnished, and that has changed their perceptions of him. It's like buying a new car and getting a dent in it. It's still a grand car, but you don't treat it quite the same after the first dent."

In both polls voters were asked if they thought the country generally is headed in the right or wrong direction. Their response indicated that Reagan's speech had produced a more upbeat mood: 24% (an increase of 11%) answered that the nation is headed in the right direction in the latest survey, while 24% (a decrease of 14%) said it is going in the wrong direction. Half of the respondents in both polls said that the answer is somewhere in between. The number of people who believe the President is in control of the government rose modestly to 46% in last weekend's survey; those who think he is losing control fell slightly to 48%.

Although endorsing the candor of his speech, a little more than half of the respondents still believe that Reagan told lies at some point in the scandal--the figure increased about 10% after the release of the Tower report--and two in three Americans think the Iran-contra affair will negatively affect the President's leadership; one in three say it will have no effect. By a 5-3 margin, Americans still think the scandal may be at least as serious as Watergate.

Most Back First Lady Role

Americans reject the contention raised by some government critics that First Lady Nancy Reagan plays too important a role in White House policy-making, the poll found. Six of 10 believe her involvement is about right or insignificant; less than half that number think she is too involved.

Voters are about evenly divided over whether Reagan actually apologized in his speech for his handling of the Iran-contra affair, but by a 54%-41% margin they said that they are satisfied with his explanation of personal accountability. They also were divided on whether it is time to put the scandal behind the nation or whether further investigation is needed.

The margin of error in a poll of this magnitude is 3% in either direction.

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