A majority of Americans believe President Reagan would rather protect polluters than clean up the environment, according to a Washington Post-ABC News public opinion poll taken the past two weeks during the controversy over the Environmental Protection Agency.
By 2 to 1 among those holding an opinion, Reagan is seen as caring more "about protecting the firms that are violating" anti-pollution laws than he cares about enforcing those laws.
The poll found the public to be almost as critical of Reagan as of EPA Administrator Anne M. Burford, who has been at the center of the controversy for more than three months.
This finding comes in a poll showing a distinct improvement in the public mood in other areas. Citizens are much more optimistic about the future of the economy, and Reagan's overall approval rating, although still negative, has picked up somewhat from a Post-ABC News poll in January.
The controversy over the EPA, however, has caused sharp consternation at the White House, where some aides are said to consider Burford a political liability and want her to resign. The Post-ABC News poll finding is the first to suggest that the public not only is dissatisfied with Burford but that it also holds Reagan accountable for the EPA practices that have come into question.
In all, 2 of every 3 people among the 1,504 interviewed said that they had heard or read about the EPA controversy.
Among those people, 54 percent said they believe that Reagan cares more about protecting firms that have violated anti-pollution laws than about enforcing those laws.
Twenty-seven percent said they think he cares more about enforcing the laws, and 19 percent expressed no opinion.
Rank-and-file Republicans, the group that always is most strongly in support of Reagan, are almost equally divided over whether Reagan cares more about protecting violators than enforcing pollution laws.
As for Burford, among those who said they had heard or read about the controversy, 16 percent said they felt she cared more about enforcing anti-pollution laws and 60 percent said she cared more about protecting firms that violate those laws. Another 24 percent had no opinion.
The president has attempted to deflect to the news media much of the criticism of the EPA, but citizens appear to be rejecting that approach. Earlier this week Reagan said that the television news shows focused on bad news to prop up their ratings, and asked them to spend a week soon stressing good news.
Earlier, when asked whether there is a scandal at the EPA, Reagan said, "The only one brewing is in the media that's talking about it."
At various times throughout his term in office Reagan and some of his supporters have made similar disparaging remarks about media coverage.
One question in the Post-ABC News poll asked, "Generally speaking, do you think the TV network news reports are too critical of Reagan, not critical enough, or do you think those reports are generally fair in their coverage of him."
Sixteen percent said the networks were too critical. An additional 16 percent said they were not critical enough, and 66 percent said the networks treated Reagan fairly.
Another poll question asked the public for a similar critique of newspaper coverage of Reagan. The response was nearly identical, with 14 percent saying the newspapers where they live were too critical, 18 percent saying they were not critical enough and 62 percent saying they were generally fair.
Reagan's appointment and support of another Cabinet member in charge of dealing with environmental matters, Interior Secretary James G. Watt, also came under sharp criticism in the Post-ABC News poll.
Strikingly, however, far fewer people seem to have focused on Watt than on Burford.
Until recently, Watt had been more sharply criticized by environmentalists than any other administration official.
The poll asked this question regarding Watt:
"Would you say you approve or disapprove of Reagan's appointment and support of James Watt as secretary of the interior, or don't you have an opinion on that?"
Nine percent said they approved; 28 percent said they disapproved, and a hefty majority of 63 percent said they had no opinion. Criticism of Reagan's support for Watt was sharpest in the western states, where Watt has been thought to be most popular.
In all, 41 percent of those interviewed from that region said they disapproved and 11 percent said they approved.
Opposition to Watt was especially strong in the open areas of the West, the states other than California, where Watt's proposal to sell off public lands has met keen opposition.
Watt and Burford have been attacked repeatedly by environmentalists since being appointed. Both were used as targets in fund-raising letters that are said to have drawn six times the response that such letters drew in the past.
The controversy over the EPA has prompted inquiries by six congressional committees. It involves charges that the EPA has struck sweetheart deals with polluters rather than forcing them to pay their share of the cleanup of hazardous waste sites, and has delayed enforcement for political reasons.
There also are various allegations of conflict of interest involving EPA officials. Also involved is whether the Reagan administration will release EPA documents to the committees.