Clinton's Budget Factor

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IT was a narrow escape. The Clinton presidency was nearly broken, or badly bent. Many in the House and Senate voted for the economic package to save their president. One off-the-record poll of Democrats in Congress has found that had it not been for this presidential-backing factor, 40 of them would have voted against the bill.

Unlike nations with parliamentary systems, the United States is stuck (barring malfeasance) with a chief executive who has lost his ability to lead. One doesn't have to be a backer of President Clinton or his program to see how everyone suffers when the man at the top has been rejected. Remember how President Lyndon Johnson was broken by the Vietnam War? We simply can't have a president who has lost or loosened his hold on the tiller.

If Mr. Clinton's budget plan had been rejected by the House or Senate, he would not have been in the terrible shape Johnson found himself in, or that of Watergate-beleaguered Richard Nixon before he stepped down. But he would have been badly damaged in his ability to get anything done. So, now we come to an end of the Reaganomics era and move into Clintonomics. The president's economic stimulus package was earlier lost to an adamant bunch of GOP senators. And now many of his "investment" programs have be en eliminated or substantially cut back.

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To the president's credit, the budget includes increased aid for the working poor and funds for the restructuring of college student aid. But it seems to focus mainly on trimming the deficit. Optimistic figures indicate that the deficit five years from now will be about 40 percent below the level it had been projected to reach without the bill. But this target is only achieved if projected spending cuts take place. Three-fifths of these are not scheduled until that fifth year, when Clinton is starting a new term or is on the sidelines. At least one liberal analyst concedes that "history" indicates that Congress will turn to new taxes rather than make such reductions in spending - despite Clinton's "guarantees" to the contrary.

How should we assess the Clinton victory? The president, in the first few minutes after the Senate vote, asserted: "We are seizing control of our economic destiny."

Earlier in the week the president had hailed the wafer-thin House vote as a "clear mandate" for his economic plans. At a succession of Monitor press sessions Vice President Albert Gore Jr., Office of Management and Budget head Leon Panetta, Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and House Speaker Tom Foley were asked whether these presidential words were somewhat of an overreach. All seemed to feel that the vote, close as it was, was further corroboration for what was shown in the November election results: That the public clearly wanted change.

Asked by a reporter what the president's "vision" for this country was, the vice president said it was a country with jobs for everyone. So how are we to judge this president's new program? The easy measuring stick to use is to keep an eye on joblessness, which seems already to be dipping slightly. But if nothing much happens to this sluggish economy, and Clinton comes back fairly soon to the public with a request for new taxes and more cutbacks on entitlements - the judgment will have to be that his pro gram is faltering if not failing.

It was good that this president was saved by the bell. But he must battle back now, and show us something. Most of all he must win public approval for his presidency.

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