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Clinton Reveals Aspirations of Greatness for Second TermBy John F. Harris and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 25, 1996; Page A01
President Clinton will spend the next 72 days seeking the blessing of voters and, if he is successful, he will spend the next four years seeking the blessing of history.
Clinton is a politician who has wanted since he was a young man not merely to win the presidency but to join the small company of large presidents, to be one of those rare leaders who stamp an imprint deep on an era. But he has failed in his first four years when he tried to sponsor large changes, and succeeded when he stood in opposition to the Republicans and offered a more modest and incremental agenda.
His methods in the past two years have produced an impressive political comeback but, in the eyes of presidential scholars and many of his contemporaries in government, they have yet to yield a presidency that will echo through time. And the reality of recent decades is that second terms are rarely more successful than first terms, and are often dramatically less so.
In an Oval Office interview last week, Clinton displayed the scope of his policy interests in a second term. And the 42nd president revealed himself as a politician with breathtaking ambitions for what he hopes historians will someday write about his presidency.
He said he wants to be known as the only president other than Theodore Roosevelt to shape an era of dramatic change "without a major war catalyzing it."
A century ago, America's economy and culture switched from an agricultural base to an industrial one. Clinton said his brand of activism can usher a more humane transition from the industrial age to a computer-based "more entrepreneurial information age."
"I would hope that they would say that for the second time since the beginning of the Republic, during these years America made a major change in the way people worked, lived, and related to each other and the rest of the world," Clinton said.
The question is whether Clinton has an agenda commensurate with such vast goals. The root of Clinton's problems, according to University of Pittsburgh political scientist Bert Rockman, is that Clinton has clawed his way back to favor over the past two years by accepting GOP assumptions about the size of government. In January's State of the Union address, Clinton declared that "the era of big government is over" and, over the past year, he has committed himself to balancing the budget by 2002. The result is that even if Democrats manage to evict Republicans from one or both houses of Congress this fall, a period of austerity will remain in residence.
"He has followed brilliant tactics, that have left him with no strategy," said Rockman.
Much of Clinton's effort over the next week and through the fall campaign will be aimed at dispelling the notion that smaller government means weaker or less progressive government.
In his interview, Clinton said the second term would bring an attempt to deal with the soaring costs of entitlement programs for the elderly such as Medicare, and he said he would want to appoint a bipartisan commission to examine Social Security. But he said he thinks the experts who believe entitlements are "the looming question facing us and that America may not measure up are grossly underestimating the American people and I think overstating the dimensions of the problem."
More important, Clinton suggested, will be new efforts in education, where he expects "to put an enormous amount of effort," including a push for passage of a two-year $1,500 tax credit designed to make community college a public entitlement in the way high school is today. Some senior administration officials also promise a second term will bring a renewed push for expanding worker training programs and figuring out new ways to increase wages for those below the median income. Clinton likewise has proposed pension reform, including plans to ensure the security of retirement funds, and make it easier for people to carry pensions from one job to another.
And during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago this week, aides say Clinton will highlight about two dozen proposals -- some new, some previously announced -- dealing with crime, the environment and tax incentives to lift up cities. The idea is to blitz the public with initiatives, a way of making the case that Clinton is already immersed in the substance of a second term.
Clinton acknowledged that "the specific issues may seem small, but when you add them up, they're very big."
Indeed, Clinton advisers say that being frustrated in his legislative goals has spurred Clinton to be more creative in his policies. He has used his Oval Office forum and executive powers to encourage things such as television ratings, and coordinating private companies to wire schools for the Internet or encouraging tougher enforcement on "deadbeat dads" who don't pay child support.
Skeptics, including some in his own party, question whether such smaller-scale initiatives amount to a large agenda. But Clinton said they reflect one of the main lessons of his presidency. "You have to learn to use all the powers of the presidency," he said. "Part of it is the legislative work. Part of it is executive action. Part of it is forging partnerships with people beyond the executive government. Part of it is bully pulpit, trying to change the attitudes and direction of the country."
But in what direction?
Guessing the course of a Clinton second term is a more vexing question than it would be for most presidents. Ronald Reagan, for instance, had by his first year in office already defined himself clearly to the public and passed what his supporters believe were his signal achievements, cutting tax rates and increasing military spending.
But even to many supporters, Clinton remains a blurred figure, as though there have been two different presidents occupying the Oval Office.
Whose vision would define a second term: the president who raised taxes in his first year and proposed a massive "stimulus" package filled with billions in public works spending, or the one who now is pushing for targeted tax cuts? Will it be the president of the big idea, like comprehensive health care reform, or the president of the smaller gesture, who pushes initiatives to improve 911 response times and speaks out in favor of school uniforms? The one who linked himself closely to congressional Democrats in 1993 and 1994, or the one who angered these same lawmakers by charting an independent, more bipartisan course in 1995 and 1996?
Clinton administration officials describe themselves as a chastened lot, and say that a second term would not bring a return to anything on the magnitude of the health care initiative. "I don't think the public is in a mood for large-scale, comprehensive government programs," said Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, a longtime Clinton friend. "What they do want is help getting on with their daily lives."
"Believe me," said a senior White House official, "I don't think there's anyone in the administration who longs to return to the good old days of 1993."
But this is precisely the specter which Republican nominee Robert J. Dole says the public must fear. The theory is that Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, liberated from the need to seek reelection, would give free run to their more liberal impulses.
But Republican strategist William Kristol called this scenario implausible. "I believe," Kristol said, "especially if there is a Republican Congress, Clinton will have a simple attitude: 'I went left in my first two years and it was a disaster; I went centrist in my second two years and it was great.' The way to have a successful second term is to stay centrist, while doing enough to keep the left happy on abortion, affirmative action and key issues for key constituencies."
Yet if Clinton does no more than this, and doesn't explain how the smaller pieces fit into a larger whole, Kristol said: "He's Eisenhower. He leaves no real imprint on domestic policy. He just slows down the Republican revolution."
Clinton and his aides vigorously dispute the notion that a small-government president cannot be a strong president. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, a political intimate of Clinton's, says "even our most traditionally left partners are not demanding huge new budgets," although he acknowledges that the administration is still improvising on precisely how to promote activist government in new ways. "The trend toward community-based, smaller-scale [programs], the role of the market -- all of these things are fairly well-settled," he said. "The tone and the spin are not completely resolved."
Clinton's approach heavily reflects the partnership Clinton has forged with political consultant Dick Morris, who was involved in all of Clinton's successful gubernatorial elections in Arkansas, and who returned to the Clinton fold after the Democratic humiliation in the 1994 elections.
The Morris view, as described by people inside and outside the administration who are familiar with it, is based on the belief that there is far more bipartisan consensus among the electorate on the large issues of government than there is in Washington. The reason that polling finds such widespread frustration among the public over politicians, the theory goes, is that they are angry the parties can't quickly strike agreement on such things as the balanced budget and welfare reform and also that many of these traditional government proposals have little bearing on most people's daily lives and concerns.
The key to a successful presidency, according to this philosophy, is for Clinton to relentlessly seek the middle ground on conventional issues like the budget, but to devote far more of his attention to subjects that are outside the traditional realm of government policy but matter most to voters. This is what led to things like Clinton's successful push for televisions in the future to contain "V" chips, which allow parents to block out violent and objectionable programming, as well as last week's announcement of regulations to limit children's access to tobacco.
The approach also included less consequential issues such as Clinton's advocacy of things such as school uniforms, an issue that is under the province of local school boards, and youth curfews, which nearly three-quarters of large cities already have on the books anyway, although often unenforced.
Al From, the head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, says by embracing "a lot of these small ideas, Clinton sends very big messages about what his values are."
Rockman, the presidential scholar, says the strategy is based on "video bites" and is "destined to loom minutely in history. It does in fact trivialize the presidency."
But one conservative analyst, Steve Moore of the Cato Institute, envisions one way that Clinton will seek to circumvent the problem of empty government coffers. "Liberalism will become the politics of wage politics rather than of budget politics," he said. "Minimum wage was first, [then] more mandated benefits, more corporate citizenship stuff. We may not be able to afford federal health care, but we'll force businesses to do it. . . . And that's a tough thing for Republicans to fight off, as you could see from the minimum wage debate."
Clinton has to some extent embraced this idea already. The second term, he said in the interview, would bring initiatives where the federal government sets standards on the environment and education, but gives broad leeway to others about how to reach them. "I would like to find new ways to meet shared goals," he said, "where we decide at the national level the 'what' that needs to be done, and either the state or local government or the private sector decides the 'how.' "
Presidential advisers say that, after a turbulent period early in his term, Clinton has resolved the tensions in his own political philosophy about the role of government. But if this is true for Clinton, it is plainly not so for the Democratic Party generally. It remains a querulous coalition sharply divided between its liberal and moderate wings.
And it is a party sharply divided in its hopes for a Clinton second term. The competing expectations are summed up in the comments of two leading Democrats, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.).
"I believe Bill Clinton will focus on his centrist roots," Richardson predicted. "I see him shooting for the history books and to be another great president like Roosevelt or Kennedy, you'll see some creative or dynamic legislation that is centrist. . . . The DLC Clinton will dominate the second term."
But Sweeney bluntly dismissed that path as one that would lead to a diminished presidency. "I don't think he wants to finish up like the governor of a southern state," he scoffed. "I really feel he will undertake and lead a majority legislative program for the second term."
White House senior adviser George Stephanopoulos said that one lesson Clinton has learned that more progress can be made with successful small steps rather than stumbling large ones. The constant in Clinton's tenure, he said, is that "he is a president of grand ambition.
"But we've learned that any change to be successful must be bipartisan and incremental," he said.
Robert Dallek, a historian who has written biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and has a new book on how presidents succeed and fail, said that Clinton has eked out only "an average presidency, not in any way a disaster, but not in any way great."
And the historical odds would go against him in a second term. Reagan became engulfed in the Iran-contra affair, and Richard M. Nixon resigned over Watergate. Dwight D. Eisenhower's second term was dimmed by health problems and what critics called a lack of energy. The task for Clinton may be to define not merely policy proposals but a larger purpose.
"The great limitation of his presidency has been the want of a grand vision," said Dallek, who met with Clinton in March. "If you are just an improviser, people see you as opportunistic. But if you have a vision, people are understanding of flexibility."
Can Clinton overcome his own missteps and the ideological divisions of his era? "I don't think the times lend themselves to presidential greatness," Dallek said. "On the other hand, we should not lose sight of the fact that he's a very young man, and he's shown an ability for learning on the job."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company