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  • A Second Term, but a Second Chance?

    By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, January 20, 1997; Page E10

    In 1996, the American people gave President Clinton a second term, but it will be in 1997 when he learns whether they also gave him a second chance.

    The record Clinton compiled during his first four years in the White House was good enough for reelection, but not sufficient to purge the nagging contradictions of his presidency. That task lies ahead as the nation's 42nd president takes the oath of office again Monday, and whether he accomplishes it will depend not only on whether Clinton has clear answers for where he wants to lead the country, but on whether a skeptical public and a mistrustful Congress will find those answers believable.
    Aboard Air Force One in November 1995, en route to the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Clinton, far right, meets with Newt Gingrich, left. The White House.

    Clinton has said that his supreme ambition as president is to be a national unifier — a leader who can coax a divided people to "reconcile their differences and come to a consensus which will push the country forward," as he said at a recent breakfast with religious leaders.

    Yet during his first term he was more often than not a national divider — a man who first won election with just 43 percent of the vote and excited uncommonly strong anger and suspicion among his opponents, some of whom plainly regarded the young president's very presence in the Oval Office as illegitimate. Even in reelection, he fell a shade shy of commanding a majority.

    Another contradiction: Clinton probably is more voluble than any president in talking about the lessons he has learned in office and in insisting that he has arrived at a coherent philosophy about where he wants to lead the nation. Yet many people remain uncertain regarding his true beliefs.

    Which leads in turn to the largest contradiction of all. The fact that Clinton has proven so masterful in campaigning is one reason he engenders disappointment and anger when he sets to the task of governing.

    When he first arrived on the national scene, one of his closest advisers from the 1992 campaign recently acknowledged, Clinton was so adept at convincing people he shared their views that their disappointment when he did things they opposed was all the more acute. Now that he is a familiar figure, he is known as such a famously political creature enraptured by public opinion polls and the thrill of seduction that his rhetoric and policies are viewed through a lens of suspicion.

    Was Clinton's centrist repositioning on the budget and welfare reform after the Democratic humiliation in 1994 a reflection of genuine belief or a series of campaign tactics? Do Clinton's endorsements of school uniforms and voluntary TV ratings show how he has learned to use the moral power of his office in creative ways? Or were these things simply poll-tested gimmicks?

    Above all: Is Clinton ready to lead the nation? Or he is simply quite skilled at following it?

    Clinton aides have promised that Monday's inaugural address will be a compelling answer. Clinton will seek "to define a moment in history," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry. As the speech was in its early drafts, advisers were promising a rumination on the currents of economic and social change coursing through the nation on a brink of a new century and on how Clinton thinks rhetorical leadership from the "bully pulpit," as well as government action, particularly in education, can help people make the transition.

    Clinton, according to his advisers, wants above all to be seen as a historic figure, not merely a political one.

    There is at least some encouraging news for him on this front. The anger that once greeted Clinton from opponents, and the cheeky irreverence even from sympathizers, may be receding.

    Michael Harrison, the editor of Talkers magazine, which monitors hundreds of talk radio shows around the nation, said he noticed a dramatic shift about six months ago, around the time it became clear in many minds that Clinton was virtually certain to win a second term. Many once-hostile talk show hosts stopped referring to Clinton as "Bill" or "Willie" and started calling him "President Clinton" or "the president."

    "It's no longer 'in' to bash Clinton on talk radio among mainstream hosts," said Harrison. "There's a resignation that he is president for four more years. . . . He survived. The world continues to turn."

    "One of Clinton's political assets is the public's willingness to see him as an unfinished product, someone who's able to grow in the office," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "He's successfully made the transition from politician to president."

    Among the important events in this transition, Garin said, were Clinton's ability to play the role of national healer after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and his decision to defy public opinion later that year in sending U.S. troops to help enforce a peace settlement in Bosnia.

    With the economy generally doing well, and Clinton's approval ratings generally in the high fifties in most surveys, "there is a general sense of a calmer, less cynical, less alienated climate," said Karlyn Bowman, who studies public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.

    Russian President Boris Yeltsin, left, greets President Clinton at the Kremlin, in January 1994. Reuter
    But there are plenty of things that threaten anew to knock Clinton off his presidential perch. Foremost among these are continuing questions about Clinton's role in helping the Democratic National Committee raise millions of dollars from foreigners. Many of the contributions later were found to be improper and were returned, and Republican congressional leaders are promising an aggressive inquiry. The Justice Department likewise is investigating.

    A week ago, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether to let Clinton delay Paula Corbin Jones's sexual harassment suit until after he leaves office. Clinton denies harassing Jones, but if the Supreme Court rules against Clinton and her case goes forward, the resulting trial would be a grievous embarrassment for Clinton and would undermine his attempts to be a spokesman on values issues.

    Whitewater, which for a season has dropped out of the headlines, continues to percolate beneath the surface. When it reemerges, especially if independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr seeks an indictment against first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, this could be the most diverting scandal of all.

    Clinton also will be at least partially at the mercy of Republicans on another issue: the budget. The president has told aides he believes that reaching agreement on a package to eliminate the deficit by 2002 is "central to the administration's credibility" on all other issues.

    But whether Republicans want to cooperate is open to question. Clinton ceaselessly criticized them as heartless and extremist back in 1995 when they proposed a balanced budget, and his own plan envisioned deficits stretching indefinitely into the future. Clinton later offered plans closer to the GOP version, but he continued his criticism and benefited politically from it all the way through 1996.

    Now, in the Republican caucuses in the House and Senate, a debate is under way. Some want to make Clinton pay for what they view as his demagoguery during the election by letting him grapple with the budget on his own, at least for the time being. Others see it as in the interest of the party and the nation to come to his assistance and reach an early agreement.

    With or without an agreement, scarce resources will be the motif of Clinton's second term. When Clinton in his State of the Union address a year ago declared, "The era of big government is over," this was partly political positioning and partly a concession to a reality that Clinton himself created.

    He has ruled out anything but modest reductions in Medicare and other large entitlement spending. He has promised to hold defense spending steady. Having paid politically for his tax increase in the 1993 budget package, which succeeded in cutting annual deficits by more than half, he isn't about to propose another.

    Thus, the accent has been on more modest programs. The biggest of these is Clinton's proposal to give either a $10,000 tax deduction, or a $1,500 tax credit, to help people pay for college education. The total cost is about $40 billion over five years. During the campaign, political advisers such as Dick Morris wanted these subsidies to be far larger. But people such as Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin said that was unaffordable.

    Other initiatives reflect the same parsimony. Clinton has said his goal is to have all schools wired to the Internet by the end of his term. But he proposes that the cost be paid by the private sector, not the federal government.

    The contrast between these programs and the Clinton proposal of 1993 and 1994 when he pushed a $30 billion "stimulus package" and a large expansion of federal power with his health care plan is stark. And it is what has led more than anything else to the view that Clinton is a protean president, forever changing his views to match the political circumstances of the moment.

    Few things irk Clinton more than the suggestion that he is an opportunist. Last winter, in an interview with The Washington Post, Clinton became red in the face as he argued his record shows "remarkable consistency." The common theme of his first four years, he said, is that he fought for a strong government that is more efficient and that he supports programs that give people more ability to help themselves, rather than just rely on government.

    Leon E. Panetta, the outgoing White House chief of staff, said Clinton's own inquisitive style contributes to an unfair image.

    "His very nature wants to get as much information as possible," Panetta said in a recent interview. "Not because he doesn't have a certain gut reaction to an issue. I think he does have a gut reaction. . . . But he also wants the satisfaction of knowing that he has reached out to advisers, to groups of people, to friends."

    The one lesson he has learned, Clinton said in a Post interview last summer, is that in today's political climate, only incremental change — not comprehensive change like he pushed for with health care — is possible.

    Clinton has said the reason he expects to defy the historic pattern of troubled second terms is that in last fall's election he campaigned on the college tuition tax plan and other specific proposals. Many of his predecessors, he told the religious leaders two weeks ago, "just got reelected because things went well in their first term, not because they had actually thought through what they were going to do in their second term."

    But to the extent that people remain confused about Clinton's true intentions, it has often been a blessing for him. Last fall, Republicans offered an incoherent critique. Some said he was an opportunist who stood for nothing. But GOP nominee Robert J. Dole tried to make the case that Clinton was really a "closet liberal," just waiting for a second chance to push his ideological agenda.

    The confusion helped Clinton unite his own party, and both Democratic liberals and conservatives ultimately rallied to his banner. The complaint that Clinton fails because he tries "to be all things to all people" ignores the extent to which he often succeeds.

    Even so, governing inevitably means choosing. The clashing hopes for Clinton within his own party and the unlikelihood that he can satisfy all sides are captured in the views of two senators.

    Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said he expects Clinton to continue in his "New Democrat" incarnation, trying to work cooperatively with Republicans on deficit reduction and recognizing that it's possible to have "big plans [that] don't involve big government. . . . Government will not solve all our problems."

    Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), perhaps his chamber's most liberal member, said Clinton can only follow through on his campaign rhetoric if he is willing to take on large fights. There will be no campaign finance reform, as Clinton has promised, unless he takes on "established power" that has benefited from the status quo, Wellstone said. And he warned Clinton against letting the emphasis on deficit reduction undermine progressive goals.

    "With a Democratic president, we don't fully fund Head Start," the preschool program for poor children, Wellstone noted with dismay, adding that if Clinton doesn't fight to fix such problems, "You then have a Democratic Party without a soul."

    Republicans, for their part, are watching Clinton with a mix of admiration and sullenness. "He is a consummate politician," said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), one of the House's most conservative members. "He's the president, and it's imperative that we work with him. . . . I respect the office of the presidency. I do have some problems with Bill Clinton as an individual, and I think his reelection has not changed that."

    Clinton poses with other leaders at Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit at Indonesia in 1994. Reuter.
    Ultimately, Clinton's second-term goal is not to win over his fellow politicians but the historians who will one day study his presidency. By his own testimony, Clinton is a president who has thought long and exhaustively about how he wants to be remembered, thoughts that began before he even reached the White House.

    Clinton, according to aides who have spoken with him, thinks that most presidents fall into three categories. There are those, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, who serve in times of crisis and achieve greatness because of their bold action. When he took office in 1993, this was the model Clinton seemed to be trying to emulate. He tried to pass a large agenda in the first 100 days, just as Roosevelt did, and even took a symbolic trip to New York state's Hudson Valley to visit his hero's Hyde Park home. But Clinton later came to realize that his times were not suited to that style of leadership.

    Another type of president, Clinton believes, has a less activist agenda and serves as steward in times of national quietude, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower. But Clinton, who calls himself "an activist president," has no wish to emulate such a style.

    He believes in a third kind of president, who leads with an activist style not during times of crisis but in times of national transition. His model, Clinton has said on repeated occasions, is Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt served during the Progressive Era, a time of economic change that Clinton believes is strikingly like the modern shift to a computer-driven economy.

    In the Post interview last summer, Clinton revealed the epic size of his ambition. He said he hopes historians will write that his administration brought about "for the second time since the beginning of the republic . . . a major change in the way people worked, lived and related to each other and the rest of the world" without a major war causing the change. "The first time," Clinton added, was "obviously under Theodore Roosevelt's administration."

    But Northwestern University historian Robert Wiebe, one of the nation's leading Progressive Era scholars, warned Clinton not to get carried away with the comparison. "I can't think of two presidents more radically different in personality," Wiebe said. "Clinton is Mr. Wiggling Antenna, who tries to read every face in the room and smooth down any hard edges . . . that are an obstacle to accommodation."

    Roosevelt, by contrast, went into a room believing that "his position is the right position and he would tell everyone else," Wiebe said. "There was absolute clarity in his mind about what is right and what is wrong."

    Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the liberal historian who Clinton admires and sporadically consults with, said Clinton's ability to read audiences and his desire to bring people together is admirable. But he said Clinton should remember that most presidents with large historic reputations won large fights in the name of a higher cause.

    "The instinct for accommodation is okay, as long as it doesn't get in the way of other things," Schlesinger said. "Great presidents are unifiers mostly in retrospect."

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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