White House `Triple Threat'

WHILE a lot of people these days are admiring Bill Clinton's skill as a high-wire political performer, what needs to be remembered is that Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Al Gore Jr. are right at his side, helping immeasurably. This president has what might well be called a ``one-two-three punch.''

Mrs. Clinton stops short of being or trying to be a co-president. But she obviously has the power of the presidency behind her as she works assiduously to shape a health-care program that the country will accept, and she makes her views known on other important issues. She reminds old-timers of Eleanor Roosevelt. But Mrs. Roosevelt, unlike Hillary Clinton, often went her own way, particularly in her efforts to promote civil rights.

It has been suggested by longtime Clinton watchers that he and his wife confer on all big decisions. The Roosevelts were never viewed as having that kind of relationship.

And when in history has a vice president so actively engaged in forwarding the fortunes of the presidency? Walter Mondale and George Bush were handed useful roles by the presidents under whom they served. They probably were the most active vice presidents of a lot that has been particularly inactive over the years. Most remembered for being almost invisible while in this office was John Garner who, when asked, told Lyndon Johnson that the vice presidency was worth absolutely nothing and that he should avoid it like sin. But Mr. Johnson took the job anyway and quickly became a wallflower in the Kennedy administration.

President Clinton uses Mr. Gore like a near-partner in all sorts of ways and on all kinds of important occasions. Clinton's agreement with Gore that he volunteer to debate Ross Perot reflects this close relationship.

While Hillary Clinton is an invaluable helper to the president, she may or may not end up as a political asset. She rankles those who feel she is pushing too far, even as she inspires those who see her as a model for modern-day women. At the moment her approval rating is well above her husband's.

The president's relatively low standing in popularity polls shows why he needs both Mrs. Clinton and Gore so much. One poll indicates that only 16 percent of Americans ``strongly approve'' of Clinton. It also shows that Clinton has the next-to-lowest approval rating of any president at this time in his administration since World War II. It is perhaps a little reassuring to Clinton that it was Ronald Reagan who scored lower (though Mr. Reagan had a much higher percentage of those who highly approved of his presidency).

So Clinton, with a public-approval rating that still pretty much mirrors the 43 percent vote he received in the presidential election, had - as the Washington Post aptly put it - ``a wild ride these past 10 months ... put together with scotch tape and last-minute deals. No recent president has experienced more burials and resurrections by the commentariat.''

The president, out of necessity as well as political acumen, is leaning heavily on the others in his White House troika - Hillary and Al - to pull victories out of the jaws of defeat. To be sure, the Republicans helped Clinton on the North American Free Trade Agreement victory. But Clinton gets the final credit for pulling it off.

Actually, it was Gore who turned NAFTA in the president's direction by demolishing Mr. Perot in their debate. Gore was also effectively putting a pro-NAFTA spin on conversations with the media.

It is becoming clear that the president's strength in the face of adversity is his one-two-three punch.

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