Getting Clinton on Track

Off to a rough start, the new US president seeks to restore electorate's confidence in him

AFTER just 130 days in office, Bill Clinton has declared his first attempt at governing the country a failure. He has reversed himself on homosexuals in the armed forces, accepting the stand of Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn, which is essentially an affirmation of the status quo. He has abandoned the Btu tax, which had been the centerpiece of his deficit-reduction program. And he has sacked his communications director, replacing him with a man who did spin control for three Republican presidents.

All of this came as two national polls showed just 36 percent of Americans approving his job performance - the smallest proportion backing a new presidency in the 60 years opinion surveys have been conducted.

All of us, whatever our party affiliation, must hope that President Clinton II will be more successful than Clinton I. The US cannot afford four years of incompetent presidential leadership. But what are the prospects that the administration will manage to right itself?

Most of the press commentary suggests that the president and his key assistants have simply been politically maladroit. They should have known that having a $200 haircut administered near the runway of Los Angeles International Airport would not send the right signal for a populist administration. They should have known that they would get bad marks from the Washington press corps when, a week after they fired the White House travel office staff for alleged malperformance, they announced that five of the

employees had not in fact been fired at all.

Above all, the prevailing account has it, the administration has stumbled because it has violated its own first commandment to stay focused, "like a laser," on the issue of the day.

If the Clinton administration's difficulties have been primarily the result of political inexperience and ineptness, replacing the untested George Stephanopoulos with the seasoned David Gergen may well yield major dividends. But, I fear, the problems go far deeper. Matters of ethics and philosophy, not tactics, are at the heart of Clinton's poor start.

Consider the flap over the presidential haircut. The problem is not, in the first instance, that the affair was badly managed politically. Rather, it was an abuse of power to thus inconvenience thousands of airline passengers. Similarly, "Travelgate" attested to an ethical blind spot. The decision to channel jobs and business to political supporters is a fairly minor wrong, compared to seeking to justify the action by besmirching the staff who were to be replaced and bringing in the FBI as attempted cove r.

From the beginning, the Clinton administration has acted on the assumption that governing is a gigantic political game and if only one pushes the right buttons, invokes the right symbols, things will go swimmingly. In fact, as the president and his aides have acted on the premise that governing is just an extension of campaigning, their political stock has plummeted.

Clinton came to office with many strengths but with one overriding weakness: A large portion of the public had doubts about the moral dimensions of his leadership. Rather than providing reassurance through steady actions as president, though, Clinton has "grown" his trust deficit. He has given the appearance that he is prepared to say whatever seems convenient at the moment. As long as this perception holds, no exercise in spin control and symbol manipulation can be successful. The president isn't truste d. The best politics for him, then, doesn't involve tactics at all, but rather showing himself to be trustworthy.

The Clinton administration has also suffered in its early months by running against the grain of popular understanding of government's role and status in contemporary life. Americans are not antigovernment, but they are highly critical of governmental performance. They sent a clear signal in the 1992 campaign that they wanted and expected better performance. But, emphatically, they signaled that they did not want more government.

Contemporary thinking as to government's role is about as far removed from that of 1936 or 1964 as it could possibly be. We want to see action on our pressing public problems. We now reject the argument, though, that more government is the way to get the needed action.

But virtually every proposal the Clinton administration has made calls for a bigger governmental role. In particular, all of the signals it has sent thus far suggest that it believes it can use the public's insistence on doing something about soaring health-care costs to push through the biggest expansion of government since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs.

In this judgment the Clinton team is almost certainly wrong.

If Clinton stays on the course his aides have charted, thus far - of seeking to greatly expand government's reach in the area of health care through heavy federal regulation and taxation - he will invite a huge political backlash. Americans do, indeed, want to see government "reinvented" so as to be more efficient and competent. They do not want it to become a bigger actor in their lives.

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