Clinton Wears Two Hats: D.C. Insider and Populist
Analysts warn he must carefully balance the symbolism of presidency. TRANSITION IN WASHINGTON
ON November 28, President-elect Clinton was acting as the unconventional populist, playing volleyball on the beach and mingling with the people in a shopping mall in southern California.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Clinton is set to name Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas as his Treasury secretary on Dec. 10. This first Cabinet choice, a pillar of the Washington establishment, is a moderate, business-oriented Democrat with gravitas enough to make a Supreme Court justice appear frivolous.
The signals Clinton is sending about the tone of his administration run to extremes.
"He's buffeted between status quo and change," says Bruce Miroff, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Albany, who studies the public image of presidents.
Clinton can appeal to blue-collar populist audiences with his just-folks style, while appointing staid figures like Senator Bentsen to reassure financial and business elites, says John Kessel, an Ohio State University presidential scholar.
Clinton transition staff members are quite earnest about the president-elect's desire to carry forward his campaign rapport with the public.
"Bill Clinton is going to have an open presidency, and he's got an open inaugural," said communications director George Stephanopoulos last week. "We want to make sure that people understand that they are truly in charge of the government, that the government is accessible to them, that the president isn't someone who is out of touch with their problems and concerns." Striking a balance
Clinton's plans run from opening the White House to the general public the day after his inauguration - an idea that proved a fiasco for President Andrew Jackson 127 years ago - to doing live call-in shows at town meetings.
Some experts argue that a president must find a balance between the common touch and projecting the dignity and prestige of the office. They recall how Jimmy Carter, a president who carried his own garment bag, began to seem less than presidential in stature as his presidency wore on.
The more common view now is that Mr. Carter's populist gestures began to sour as he developed a reputation for ineptitude that he could not shake.
"If things start going badly for you," says Carter's former press secretary, Jody Powell, then critics will blame whatever style you have assumed, whether populist or regal.
The risk of taking the presidency too downscale exists, Mr. Powell says, "but I don't think it's a great one, and I don't have any sense that he's approaching it."
In fact, Americans have a long history of preferring an unpretentious style from their presidents. The resistance sometimes comes not from the public but from elites, Powell argues.
"The country likes that sort of thing better than Washington does," he says. Lobbyists in limousines and alligator shoes are uncomfortable when a president makes a point of unpretentiousness, he explains.
As long as Clinton appoints sober establishment figures of Bentsen's stripe, Dr. Miroff says, he gives himself more latitude to use populist symbols and gestures - and perhaps makes them more necessary to balance his appeal.
Some observers say they believe that such gestures will become more difficult after the first few months of a Clinton presidency. Although a president can usually conduct his business efficiently from anywhere, during a crisis or while other business requires his attention it might be "a little unseemly" for Clinton to be appearing at a call-in town meeting in the Midwest, says Sam Kernell, a presidential scholar at the University of California at San Diego.
On the other hand, the media are changing, and they require new presidential strategies for mass communication. When Richard Nixon was president, he could draw more than 60 percent of the national television audience for something as relatively trivial as the opening of the Lyndon Johnson presidential library. All three networks would carry any presidential speech, and viewers had few other options.
These days, Dr. Kernell says, President Bush drew only 40 percent of the audience for his last State-of-the-Union address. Viewers have much more to choose from.
Carter held four or five national town meetings before the national news media lost interest.
They continued to give the president strong exposure locally, Powell says, but their impact was too concentrated.
Carter held only one live call-in show from the Oval Office. The number of telephone calls badly overloaded telephone-company circuits. Technology helps
More recent technology may have resolved both problems for Clinton, Powell says. Many channels mean a vast amount of national-television air time to fill, and telephone companies have more flexible capacity.
How well Clinton's style plays with the public, and for how long, probably depends more than anything on the practical success of his policies.
"If he achieves some policy success, then I predict the Arkansas populist style will be welcome," Dr. Kessel says.