LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — PRESIDENT-ELECT Clinton, who said during the campaign that he pities the president who becomes "walled off from the country," has brought a cross section of the United States to his operations in Little Rock, Ark., this week.
Today he and Vice President-elect Gore will preside over the second day of an economic conference attended by some 300 industry, labor, and financial leaders who hail from all 50 states. Handpicked by Mr. Clinton, many participants know the former Arkansas governor and say the reason that they are attending the conference to offer their input is because Clinton is a good listener.
"Clinton spent a long time thinking about running for president and he reached out to a lot of people. He has really studied a lot of the economic and social-welfare problems that are important to the country. In the end, it won the campaign for him because he takes time to learn the issues," says Jack Rosen, chairman of New Jersey-headquartered Continental Health Affiliates, a $150 million home-health-care provider operating in 20 states.
Critics charge that Clinton's efforts to stimulate a broad discussion about the means necessary to rectify the nation's short- and long-term problems signal his lack of focus and the absence of his own set of priorities for the coming months.
One participant, an independent Wall Street investor who calls this week's gathering "a zoo," says he was surprised that Clinton and his advisers failed to cancel the event once they realized it was too big and diffuse. "They're caught between the campaign and governance," he says, and trying to form a consensus with such a disparate group of people with so many interests is futile, he adds. "This is no way to set policy."
Mr. Rosen's concerns top Clinton's economic agenda: reducing the costs of health care and making it universally accessible. The federal government's burgeoning health-care expenditures are choking the federal government's ability to pay for other initiatives and continue to drive up the deficit. More than 38 million United States residents are without coverage.
"We don't have a lot of time to solve the health-care crisis - not only in budgetary terms. If we fail to overhaul the system, health care won't be affordable to a majority of Americans," Rosen warns.
He doubts the sincerity of his industry's recent calls to cut down health-care costs through government intervention. He suspects that his colleagues are merely paying lip service to Clinton's promotion of reforms "in order to avoid a [government-run] national health-care plan, which [as businessmen] they don't want and I don't want."
But Clinton will do more to engage the industry than any other chief executive, Rosen says, because he understands the importance of the reforms: "He's the first president in 25 years who will provide the leadership to deal with health care as a social issue and a money issue."
Rosen says he has seen Clinton go from supporting "pay or play" - a mandated program in which the government would force business to provide health-care coverage or pay the government a tax to provide the service - to managed competition. Clinton's change, he says, reflects his continuing interest in assessing different approaches.
Another conference attendee, one of the nation's prominent self-made entrepreneurs, is confident that Clinton is attuned to the needs of the leading job generator in the country: small business.
"Bill Clinton knows more about the value of small business than any other president," says Alan White, owner of the Alan White Company, a furniture manufacturer and the Arkansas federal-liaison officer for the National Federation of Independent Business.
A frequent visitor over the years to the Arkansas governor's mansion, Mr. White says Clinton has a firm grasp on the issues. "I know, I've talked with him at great length."
While general economic health is essential to a favorable climate for business creation and growth, White says, the most important challenge for small business these days is fending off costly government mandates that many entrepreneurs say threaten to put the smallest firms out of business.
As a candidate, Clinton pledged to hold business accountable for a host of new developments - from stepped-up enviromental regulations to job-training requirements. White says he is encouraged by the president-elect's flexibility to reconsider earlier plans.
"He is so interested and concerned about training for employees that he came up with a payroll tax on business. I think he's come out of that, given my discussions with his senior policy advisers," White says.
Rosen hopes that by the end of the televised conference today, "the public will understand the difficulties in the economy and that there are no easy, quick solutions."