Mr. Clinton Goes to Washington

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 28, 2009; 6:37 PM

[Editor's note: This op-ed was originally published on May 6, 1993.]

The best movie ever made about Washington did not come out of Hollywood. It was compiled by the Democratic Party from clips taken from television and shown at an event shortly after Bill Clinton won the presidential election. It featured pundit after pundit, all of them the nicest of people, talking about Clinton's presidential prospects shortly before the New Hampshire primary. Dead in the water, they all said.

No one is being quite so severe nowadays, but it's clear Clinton jogged past his 100-day mark a weaker president than he was at his inauguration. The GOP marked the occasion by grading him harshly. Bob Dole, the newly anointed shadow president, gave Clinton no higher than a D in most categories -- and, one would presume, a late grade of F in humor. Other Republicans chimed in with similar assessments. "D-minus," said House Minority Leader Bob Michel. This is the school of hard knocks.

But in some respects, the harshest grades came from the public. A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Clinton with a declining approval rating -- 59 percent, down from a high of 63 percent in February. A landslide majority -- 63 percent -- thought the administration had accomplished "not much" or "nothing" in the first 100 days. And half thought that Clinton is not keeping most of his promises. When you consider what Clinton once said about reducing taxes on the middle class, it's clear he has amended a famous observation: You can fool at least half the people some of the time.

Some of this is Clinton's fault. He cannot claim that it's unfair to compare him with Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose first 100 days set the modern standard for this peculiar political dash. After all, Clinton himself used FDR as the marker. During the presidential campaign, he promised a Rooseveltian legislative blitz. Clinton claimed he would be ready on the proverbial Day One. Instead, he's become the president of tomorrow.

This is quintessential Clinton. Self-confident to the point of cockiness, he nevertheless has a compulsion to please -- to say whatever will work at the particular moment. Since his instincts are activist, since he is a political carpenter and government is his tool, he is forever promising programs -- everything from the titanic reform of the nation's health care system to a national service program for young people. In sum, Clinton's instincts are liberal -- more liberal than an electorate that gave him only 43 percent of the vote.

No adult can completely recreate himself. The centrist Clinton of the presidential campaign was at odds with the young man whose passions were civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War. In his first term as Arkansas governor, Clinton turned out to be more liberal than his state, and he was dumped. Afterward, he resolved to become more pragmatic, and he did.

But the brashness, the reliance on youthful advisers, the urge to reinvent government that were present in that first gubernatorial term are present in this one as well. Too much is being attempted too soon. After all, a clear majority of the voters opted for George Bush or Ross Perot, neither one of whom promised more government programs.

But just as Clinton disciplined himself after that failed first term as Arkansas governor and went on -- after a hiatus -- to eventually win four more, so has he seemed to learn some lessons from his first 100 days. His admission that he needs to "tighten the focus a little" is one that few will argue with -- except maybe to ask "what focus?" Similarly, his intention to beef up -- maybe "season" is a better word -- the White House staff is also a good idea. After all, energy and loyalty are not wisdom.

Campaigning for president is not the same as being president. But it's not all that different either. Those of us who covered Clinton in New Hampshire -- in those terrible days when Gennifer Flowers and questions about draft avoidance produced a firestorm of negative media coverage -- came away with some questions about his frankness, but not about his indomitability or political acumen. In purely political terms, his was a bravura performance. Back then, too, he narrowed his focus to the economy and went on to win the nomination. The man is an exceedingly accomplished politician.

It's not surprising that while Dole, Michel and much of the press were grading the president, Clinton himself was coldly doing something similar, figuring out where he went wrong, resolving to correct his mistakes -- and maybe collecting television clips suggesting he was on his way to a failed presidency. If experience is any guide, the best movie ever made about Washington is going to have a sequel.

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