Clearing Some Hurdles

LIKE the bunny in the battery ad, the Clinton presidency keeps going, and going, and going.

Two weeks ago pundits were wondering if the occupant of the White House was already irrelevant. Yet President Clinton won the NAFTA vote on Nov. 17, hosted an economic summit with Pacific Rim nations three days later, then topped off the performance this week by stepping in and ending a strike at American Airlines that would have crippled holiday travel. In the process, Mr. Clinton's help with the flight attendants restored a few of the credits with labor that he lost during NAFTA. Certainly the White House had been desperately shoring up its position.

Had there been a major failure last week, Washington writers could have summoned a withering set of negative images: the loss of the economic stimulus package last spring, the feeble budget victory in August, foreign policy fiascos in Somalia and Haiti, and the stinging Republican electoral victories in Virginia, New Jersey, and New York City earlier this month.

Yet a key success helps everything appear in a positive light. Clinton seems to have momentum. New assessments of his achievements are dizzying: NAFTA, motor voter, deficit reduction, national service, cable re-regulation, Hatch Act reform, family leave, and so on. ``Up with the heavy hitters of the century,'' said one analyst, citing Eisenhower in 1953, Johnson in '65, and Reagan in '81; an ``A-plus-plus'' for the week, snapped conservative John McLaughlin. (Some credit goes to Vice President Al Gore Jr. Selecting Mr. Gore as veep gave candidate Clinton credibility; now Mr. Gore is associated with the NAFTA victory via a stellar performance opposite Ross Perot.)

Political momentum is based largely on perception - something White House gurus like David Gergen understand keenly. Yet before too much or too little credit is given this president, a more sober assessment of substantive issues is needed. This must take place without spin control and over time. When White House legislation makes itself felt in American culture - as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has done, for example - a true picture emerges.

It is too early to make definitive judgments. NAFTA is a long road. The Pacific Rim conference was coolly received by Asian nations. The Brady bill has not yet passed. Foreign policy is a major blind spot (Clinton foolishly offended the Europeans in Seattle). Health care awaits.

The White House has cleared some hurdles. But a deeper character to this presidency has yet to emerge.

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