Perception of Leadership

LESS than six months into his presidency, Bill Clinton is still working to solidify his role as the political leader of the world's remaining superpower.

In an interview with the Washington Post published May 14, Mr. Clinton noted that "there is a sort of permanent government here, but there's also a permanent political culture. And I have to learn - it is my job as president to learn to make the most of that instead of letting it make the most of me."

He looks to be a fast learner. The knocks taken during the defeat in March of his modest economic stimulus package - knocks largely due to his own team's political heavy-handedness - have led to the victory in the House Ways and Means Committee May 13 of his $246 billion, five-year tax increase, a key element in his deficit-reduction package. The package is expected to clear the full House next week. It faces difficult, but not insurmountable, problems in the the Senate, particularly in the Senate Financ e Committee.

The president and his team are striving to strike a balance between the substance of leadership - helping to develop and implement proposals to meet challenges that the nation confronts - and the perception of leadership, a vital tool in any leader's political utility belt for building a consensus behind those proposals.

A balance is critical to his efforts to solve domestic problems such as the deficit, the sluggish economy, and the high cost of medical care. It also could be critical to solving what he has called the most pressing foreign-policy problem be faces: the war in the former Yugoslavia.

The road to regaining that balance largely begins at home. His poll ratings are unenviable: A USA Today-CNN-Gallup survey released May 14 recorded a 10-percentage-point drop in his approval rating in one week. But that could turn around as he continues to focus on the issues that got him elected, especially deficit reduction and health-care reform.

Stronger public support for him in general could strengthen his hand on Yugoslavia, where his calls for arming the Bosnian Muslims and conducting selective bombing raids have met with stiff opposition from Western European countries.

As far as perceptions go, the Europeans have Clinton over a barrel: Privately, leaders say that if Clinton acts, they will follow. Unfortunately, their occasionally imperious public positions could lead to a self-fulfilling notion at home of the Clinton team as unable to establish itself with key allies, especially compared with President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III. This is hardly a selling point to Americans, whose support Clinton says he needs for military action. Americans may be more

willing to back him if they see action taken on what they feel are more pressing concerns.

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