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Clinton Prepares to Push Role as National UnifierBy John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 5, 1997; Page A01
Two months after President Clinton ended his successful reelection campaign, he will return to the White House from a Caribbean vacation tonight to launch a new campaign.
This one will be waged over the next two months with a rush of public events that advisers hope will present Clinton as a nonpartisan national unifier and help him avoid being engulfed by Washington controversies over the budget and political fund-raising.
Monday morning Clinton will seek a lofty tone on the importance of community and reconciliation at an ecumenical prayer breakfast at the White House, the first of what advisers say will be a two-week sprint of daily appearances preceding the Jan. 20 inauguration. The plan would revive the rhetorical themes and poll-tested policies Clinton used to advantage in the election and apply them to the new environment he faces as he starts a second term.
Later this week he will announce that default rates on student loans are dropping and make a new appeal for his proposal to give $1,500 tax credits to pay for community college tuition. On Friday, he will summon corporate leaders, including the chief executives of United Airlines, Sprint and Monsanto, to the Oval Office to highlight the role of the private sector in moving people from welfare to work.
Next week he will appeal to the Senate to ratify a global treaty to ban chemical weapons. An expected approval of the treaty collapsed last September after Republican presidential nominee Robert J. Dole came out against it, and White House aides hope Clinton can push for passage at the same time he makes a broader point about the need for bipartisanship.
"1996 was about partisan politics, 1997 is about putting aside these differences and getting work done," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry, reciting the theme he said Clinton will invoke repeatedly the next few weeks.
White House aides, speaking on condition they not be named, say they and Clinton see the next several weeks as a period of vast possibility and acute peril. The uncertainty, in the White House view, is how receptive Republicans will be to Clinton's invitations to bipartisanship.
Public opinion will be pivotal, advisers believe. The two weeks before the inauguration, the address Clinton will give as he is sworn in on Jan. 20, and the State of the Union speech he will deliver Feb. 5, cumulatively will shape how Clinton's second term is viewed by the nation and help determine whether he can translate a political victory into a governing strategy.
The themes will be an echo of the fall campaign. The emphasis will be on smaller initiatives and public-private partnerships instead of large government programs. And Clinton again plans to use vigorously his presidential platform to promote family values, and concepts of good citizenship on issues well outside the usual province of the federal government.
During the election, most of Clinton's efforts on the "values" front, such as endorsing school uniforms or proselytizing against teen smoking, were viewed by most observers as political gambits. And these popular stands did help Clinton shed his reputation as a cultural and political liberal and claim what had been fertile ground for Republicans.
But Clinton, aides say, is eager to show this bully pulpit approach amounts to more than campaign tactics. In yesterday's weekly radio address, for instance, Clinton hailed various local efforts aimed at lowering teen pregnancy. In his inaugural address, aides say, Clinton likely will play down government and talk more broadly about one of his favorite themes: the historic shift the country is making from an industrial to an information society. The State of the Union speech, in turn, will emphasize how some government programs subsidies for education and training, reforms in the pension laws, and the like can help individuals through this transition without large new expenditures.
In recent conversations with aides, Clinton has said most presidents fall into one of three categories. There are those, like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lead the country in times of grave crisis, and those, like Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s, who act as stewards in times of national quietude. And there are those, he said, like Theodore Roosevelt, who do not face a dire crisis but help steer transitions in the role of government. Clinton said he sees himself in this third category. Even so, it will be traditional Washington issues the budget and campaign finance dominating Clinton's agenda during at least the first part of the year.
Clinton has said he is determined to strike an early agreement on a plan to balance the budget by 2002, and White House aides say he has some cause for optimism. Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) have spoken frequently since the election, leaving the president hopeful they can work well together.
White House aides say they believe also that Clinton has weathered the worst of the revelations about the fund-raising tactics of the Democratic National Committee. Since the closing weeks of the campaign, when Clinton aides tried to stamp out the controversy with a strategy of denial and nondisclosure, the White House has been buffeted by daily stories detailing how Democrats raised vast sums from illegal or questionable foreign sources and exploring Clinton's role in the fund-raising.
The White House's plan for quieting the uproar has two elements. The first is to push campaign finance reform to early passage. White House congressional liaison John Hilley, officials said, has been holding strategy sessions several times a week.
Second, Clinton hopes to use the appointment of a new DNC chairman at the party's Jan. 21 meeting to convince the public that the party is eager to correct its excesses of 1996. The most widely mentioned name is former Michigan governor James Blanchard, although others, including outgoing West Virginia governor Gaston Caperton, are possibilities.
During the campaign, one frequent line of Republican criticism was that Clinton's centrist rhetoric was posturing, and that after the election he would return to the more liberal style of governing that colored the early part of his first term.
That now seems unlikely, judging by the issues Clinton plans to emphasize the next two months and the people he appointed to senior positions. Erskine B. Bowles, a moderate North Carolina businessman tapped to replace departing Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, will not officially take over until the inauguration but was heavily involved in devising the strategy of the next two months. So were communications director Donald A. Baer and senior adviser Rahm Emanuel, both of whom have sponsored Clinton's centrist positioning.
Next weekend, Clinton will hold a retreat for Cabinet secretaries and senior staff at Camp David. Unlike the retreat he held four years ago, this one will feature neither outside consultants as "facilitators" nor personal storytelling. Instead, one aide said, discussion will be about second-term policies "no inner-child stuff."
Clinton, aides say, is not in frequent touch with former political consultant Dick Morris, but his 1997 strategy incorporates one of Morris's favorite ideas: that Clinton not allow himself to be seen as a captive of Washington politics and instead travel frequently and promote popular ideas that do not involve big government.
After the State of the Union speech, Clinton's travel schedule will pick up, and include visits to state capitals to urge legislators to adopt more rigorous standards for schoolchildren.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company