Clinton Needs Early Wins To Set Stage

Image counts; take-charge aura on economy is important first step toward later success

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A MEASURE of optimism has returned to the American economy, according to consumer confidence surveys, much of it riding on high expectations of a Clinton administration.

Whether it sticks depends on how President-elect Clinton moves to meet those expectations.

By the time he takes office, a meter will be ticking on his political credibility. If recent history is any guide, Mr. Clinton will have up to six months to establish an impression as a strong and successful leader taking action on the economy.

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"I think people come to very quick judgments about presidents, based on first impressions," says Stuart Eizenstat, the Washington lawyer who ran domestic policy in the Carter White House. That impression is set in three to six months, he adds.

"It is a terribly important thing" to the eventual success of a presidency and his ability to get things done, Mr. Eizenstat says.

One of the lessons of the Carter presidency is that no matter how effective Jimmy Carter was in his last two years as president, he never shook the aura of ineptitude established in his first few months.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, projected an image of political strength and assurance years after Congress had stalled his legislative progress in late 1981.

A strong first impression can also carry short-term impact on the economy. Confidence in the economy appears to be closely linked to confidence in Clinton right now.

The Conference Board, a private business research group, released its latest consumer confidence figures on Tuesday, showing a "surprising" 10 percent jump in confidence in one month. The jump was led by what Conference Board's chief economist Gail Fosler calls a "burst of expectations," which rose 16 percent. Meanwhile, the survey showed no change in the number of people viewing jobs as hard to find.

Ms. Fosler says it is important to public confidence that Clinton be in control, and appear to be in control, of the government, including Congress and the legislative agenda.

"That will be very comforting to Americans," she says. Poor confidence in the economy is less outright pessimism than a reflection of "unease and uncertainty."

Clinton needs an early win in Congress, many analysts agree. Eizenstat believes this must include most of his economic proposals from the campaign - job creation, public investment, and deficit control.

On the other hand, an early legislative defeat for Clinton would be "disastrous," says George Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A&M University. "He would be seen as very ineffective."

As for showing results, the American public has proven quite patient with presidents while waiting for the economy to perk up - as long as they appear strong and engaged on the subject.

The president, says Vanderbilt University political scientist Erwin Hargrove, "has to give the appearance of success in the first six months." This is more critical to his eventual effectiveness than economic recovery itself, at first. "People will wait."

Fosler estimates that Clinton has nine to 15 months for the economy to improve before people begin to hold it against him and his ratings decline.

"People are willing to blame the previous administration for quite a while," Dr. Edwards says.

Clinton does not bring a lot of political leverage to Congress. Edwards observes that most members of the next Congress won more votes in their districts than Clinton did.

He carries no clear mandate except change. And he still has some weakness on credibility. "He is in a very vulnerable position," Edwards says.

But Congress also has reasons of its own to give Clinton some early legislative successes. "They've got their own problems," Eizenstat says. "They've got to show they can get things done."

He says he believes that Congress will give Clinton an extended honeymoon "because there is as much party discipline right now as is possible under our system."

Says a Democratic congressional staff member: "People want to make this president work. A lot of Democrats think this may be our last chance."

But goodwill alone does not reconcile sharply divergent interests, such as many in Congress will hold over health-care reform. Fosler surmises that between global economic competition, budget deficits, and other structural challenges to the country, Clinton "has to fulfill promises that are fundamentally more difficult to fulfill than any in 50 years."

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