President Faces a Confluence Of Crises Beyond His Control
By John F. Harris
A showdown in Kosovo could lead to U.S. military action within days. An impasse on Capitol Hill could prompt a government shutdown by the end of the week. The world's top financial officials are in town looking to Washington for credible responses to the world's economic slump.
And, by the way, the House of Representatives plans to vote Thursday whether to begin an inquiry that could remove President Clinton from his office.
This week a president who long ago grew accustomed to crisis is facing a remarkable convergence of crises. This alignment of problems in both domestic and foreign policy will test anew the degree to which Clinton's ability to govern has been hampered by personal scandal.
This week also highlights a perilous reality for Clinton: Across a variety of fronts, his future will be determined by events and decisions in which he is not the dominant actor.
"I think you get the sense that things are increasingly out of control," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser in the Carter administration. "We're in a situation that could become quite malignant."
In the Balkans, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for months has defied warnings to end his brutal suppression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Clinton has pledged a U.S.-led NATO military strike if Milosevic does not yield to the latest ultimatum. But critics on Capitol Hill briefed by the administration say the White House seems bereft of long-term solutions for a problem that threatens to repeat the Bosnian nightmare.
On the international economic crisis, which Clinton plans to address today in a speech to a joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, senior Clinton aides acknowledge that they, like policymakers in other capitals, are being buffeted by market forces that they cannot fully predict or tame.
And on the budget, Republicans are plainly trying to gauge Clinton's political strength as they decide how much they are willing to yield to his policy priorities. A resolution funding the government runs out on Friday, and Congress has finished work on only four of the 13 annual appropriations bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
The plan is to keep the government going by passing an "omnibus" spending measure that wraps together the most contentious spending bills. But this may test Clinton's mettle. He has pledged to veto any measure that does not include his demands for education spending, and yesterday he warned Republicans that "it would be unacceptable" for them not to approve $18 billion to meet U.S. obligations to the IMF.
As if this basket of burdens were not full enough, it contains one more item, the heaviest of all: How to save his future in office?
White House press secretary Joseph Lockhart said Clinton is regularly calling members of Congress to express his regrets over the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy and to enlist help in his battle to avoid impeachment. But Lockhart declined to estimate how much time Clinton spends on scandal management in a typical day or week. "There's no such thing as a typical day or week here," Lockhart said. "But he has not lost focus on the issues that he was sent here to work on, and he continues to work on them."
If there is a bright side for Clinton, it is that he has been in similar circumstances before and triumphed. This week's showdowns are an echo of those that occurred three years ago, in November 1995. Then, Clinton's refusal to yield to GOP budget priorities led to the first of two government shutdowns that helped Clinton make his case that Republicans were too extreme. At the same time, high-wire negotiations were underway that finally ended with an administration-brokered peace settlement in Bosnia.
Events could break the president's way again. On the budget, a handful of White House officials yesterday expressed confidence that Republicans would back down without forcing a shutdown. One said Clinton is in a "win-win" situation either Republicans accede to his popular proposals or face the consequences in midterm elections.
White House national economic adviser Gene Sperling said Clinton already has succeeded in setting the terms of the budget debate with his "save Social Security first" policy that called for not using any money from the budget surplus for new tax cuts or spending until long-term fixes are made in the retirement program.
But such boasting cannot obscure the larger picture of Clinton's legislative weakness. Despite the president's high popularity in polls, Congress is going to go home this month without passing legislation reforming rules for health maintenance organizations, or enacting new subsidies to help poor and middle-class families pay for child care, or giving him authority to negotiate trade agreements on a "fast track" basis, or passing legislation against youth smoking. All these were items Clinton had identified as priorities for 1998.
Appearing with Democratic congressional leaders on the South Lawn of the White House, Clinton yesterday scolded Republicans for their legislative lassitude. "There is still time for us to put the people of our country ahead of politics, and I hope we'll do it," he said.
Foreign policy traditionally gives presidents more latitude to lead even when they are weakened at home. Senior White House officials yesterday dismissed criticism over the weekend from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) that the administration is belatedly following through with promises to end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo for political reasons and that it has no long-term strategy.
To the contrary, said one senior foreign policy aide, Clinton's threats of force may yet avert the need to use it. Milosevic showed signs he might be withdrawing his forces from Kosovo yesterday, officials said.
The Middle East, some White House officials said, may also offer an opportunity for Clinton to show leadership if he succeeds in prodding Israel and the Palestinians to reach agreement in negotiations planned for Washington later this month.
Robert B. Zoellick, who held senior foreign and economic policy positions in the Reagan and Bush administrations, said a similar theme runs through many of the policy challenges Clinton is facing: an especially large element of improvisation.
A president who always dealt with problems on a case-by-case basis seems more prone to that while distracted by personal problems, he said. President Ronald Reagan faced a similar problem when he was confronted by the Iran-contra scandal, but then other senior administration officials who were respected in Congress managed to fill the vacuum, Zoellick said.
"I see reactiveness, and a weakened president, and a Cabinet which does not have the heavy hitters who can pick up for him, with a couple of exceptions" who have not stepped in, Zoellick said, adding that he was disappointed that Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin has not expanded his portfolio in the current crisis.
The ranks of White House officials with the stature to help a wounded president are thinning. White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles, who has long signaled his desire to leave this year, said over the weekend that he will return to North Carolina this month, as soon as Congress leaves town. Most White House officials expect his replacement will be deputy chief of staff John D. Podesta, who has extensive Democratic connections but does not have the track record Bowles established in dealing comfortably with the GOP majority.
The partisan divide on Capitol Hill raises another factor constraining Clinton: While hoping to stave off impeachment, he has far less flexibility than before to move away from his party on issues when it suits his interest. "There is no bill that Clinton could sign that a majority of Democrats oppose," said Georgetown University political scientist Stephen Wayne. "He's got to stay with Democrats as long as impeachment is a possibility."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company