With the news media and Congress taking their cue from a public weary of questions about presidential scandal, President Clinton is free to devote his final 18 months in office to issues he sees as crucial to his legacy, including shoring up Medicare and Social Security, paying down the federal debt and restricting gun sales.
What pollsters call the "Clinton fatigue factor," rather than dragging down the president, is liberating him, his associates say.
"Clinton is the most energetic that I've seen him, the best I've seen him, the most `normal' I've seen him in a long time," said Al From, head of the Democratic Leadership Council and a frequent companion of the president in the past month. "In addition to the scandal, you had the war. I think the end of the war has lifted an incredible burden."
Clinton described his mood last week in a 70-minute White House news conference that he seemed reluctant to end. "Apparently unlike some of my predecessors," he said, ". . . I don't feel myself winding down. I feel myself keying up. I want to do more. I want to try to make sure that I give the American people as much as I can, every day. So I've got plenty of energy, and I'll do whatever I'm asked to do."
Some members of Congress say they were amazed at how well Clinton held up during impeachment, and see him all the more invigorated now that it is behind him. That and the end of the Balkans war, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said, "has allowed him now to refocus. . . . I spoke to him last week about the budget stuff, and he's on, he's focused."
For all his energy, Clinton faces significant hurdles in achieving his goals, particularly given the continuing hostility between the White House and GOP-controlled Congress. But Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said of lawmakers' recent meetings with Clinton: "I think there is a more relaxed atmosphere and environment today. . . . He feels very comfortable and very engaged."
Nowhere is Clinton's renewed engagement more evident than in his dealings with reporters. He largely avoided them last year as he first denied, then admitted, an affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, leading to impeachment by the House and a Senate trial and acquittal. Clinton held no formal news conference in Washington for nearly 11 months, although he took questions at abbreviated forums with foreign visitors and at some photo opportunities.
The thaw began shortly after his acquittal in February. Clinton held two relaxed, off-the-record dinners with White House reporters during a March trip to Central America. The floodgate opened after the Kosovo war ended, when he fielded 27 questions at a lengthy news conference on June 25. Last week alone, Clinton held news conferences on Monday and Wednesday, took several questions in the Rose Garden on Tuesday, and had dinner Thursday with several African American reporters.
White House press secretary Joe Lockhart explained the change. News organizations are as weary of the scandals as the general public is, he suggested, but unlike average citizens, they cannot tune out the president. So they have turned their focus to federal budget surpluses, Medicare expansions and other topics that the White House views as winners. "The questions you're asking on a regular basis are the issues that we're working on," Lockhart said. "He enjoys talking about these things."
Because Clinton is now unburdened by fresh scandal or another election, some observers say, he can undertake the type of missions he avoided when he had to maintain strong support among moderate voters. One example is his recent "New Markets" tour of Appalachia and other impoverished areas. The trip's backdrops seemed more appropriate for classically liberal endeavors such as Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" than to the brand of centrist, DLC-blessed projects that spurred Clinton's rise to power.
Dick Morris, a political consultant whose on-again, off-again work for Clinton ended in 1996, said the poverty tour seemed "particularly aimed at shoring up minority support for Hillary and Gore." The president has said he will do what he can to boost Hillary Rodham Clinton's expected run for the Senate from New York and Vice President Gore's presidential campaign.
Clinton supporters see the New Markets tour as another sign of his unflagging energy. "He talked about public-private partnerships" to revive struggling communities, said Rahm Emanuel, a former top aide to Clinton.
He said no one should be surprised that Clinton has an ambitious agenda for the next 18 months, which, after all, represents 19 percent of his entire time in the White House. "[When] you guys say he can't do much" as a lame-duck president, Emanuel said, "it's like throwing another 300 volts into the system. . . . He will work till the last day. That's true as a realism, and it's good politics."