When it comes to the environment, President Bush is beginning to sound like comedian Rodney Dangerfield. He claims he can't get any respect; environmentalists say he doesn't deserve much.

The president's frustrations boiled over into public view at the economic summit in Houston last week. Environmental activists, he said, "haven't seemed happy with me for a long time. And I'm not too happy with them."

The immediate cause of Bush's pique was an environmental scorecard issued at the summit that gave the administration a "poor" grade. Bush called the score "absolutely essentially absurd" and suggested it was bad manners for the groups to critique him and the other leaders of industrialized nations at the summit.

But his barbed comments reflected a view inside the administration that nothing Bush is likely to do will win him the admiration of the environmental lobby and that he can attack the organizations as extremists without voters concluding he is anti-environment.

"We cannot govern by listening to the loudest voice on the extreme of an environmental movement," Bush said. "And I did not rely heavily on them for support in getting elected president of the United States. And I'm not going to be persuaded that I can get some brownie point by appealing to one of these groups or other."

Advisers to Bush feel equally strongly. "He's gotten a really bum rap," one strategist said, implicitly comparing Bush to former president Ronald Reagan. "He has been the best person in the White House in a long time, certainly eight years. But they trash him all the time. They never give him credit."

Administration officials point to Bush's support for clean air legislation, which is now in a House-Senate conference committee, and his ban on oil drilling off the California and Florida coasts as examples of policies that should earn him more credit from environmentalists.

But leaders of the environmental lobby say Bush needs to do more to live up to his pledge to be known as the "environmental president."

"If the president doesn't like the score, the solution isn't to shoot the umpire, but to try to do better," said George Frampton, president of the Wilderness Society.

Several environmental spokesmen said they had praised Bush, particularly on offshore drilling. But they added that other Bush policies have been inadequate, including the administration argument that more scientific evidence is needed before taking action to combat global warming. This has left the president isolated from other foreign leaders, who advocated more radical action at the Houston summit, the environmentalists argued.

"To call us extremists is to call {West German Chancellor} Helmut Kohl an extremist, or to call {British Prime Minister} Margaret Thatcher an extremist," said Jay Hair, president of the National Wildlife Federation. "If he wants to have the title of environmental president, he has to earn the title."

At the heart of the current dispute is a sharp disagreement over the economic consequences of environmental policies. White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, who environmentalists say has too much influence over administration policy, told reporters in Houston that the kinds of actions advocated by Kohl to limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that are believed to contribute to global warming could stunt the U.S. economy. In another environmental fight over logging in ancient Pacific Northwest forests that are the home of the spotted owl, the administration has said it seeks a balance between jobs and owls.

Environmental activists said the country can have both a strong economy and tougher environmental policies. Frampton, pointing to Japan and West Germany, noted that the two countries with the healthiest economies among the summit participants had done the most the improve energy efficiency.

"Many of the things we ought to do on global warming will make us grow," he said.

Aides to Bush said his outburst in Houston did not reflect a change in policy in dealing with the environmental groups. But they said they see no political backlash in attacking the groups. "A lot of the public does believe there is some balance {between the environment and the economy} that has to be reached," one strategist said.

Leaders of some of the groups represented in Houston laughed off the notion that their members represent the political fringe. "I voted for George Bush," Hair said. "I like George Bush. I want him to be a global environmental leader, not someone sweeping up after the others go through."