After Domestic Wins, Will Clinton Tackle Foreign Policy?

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TREASURY Secretary Lloyd Bentsen was in a contemplative mood the other morning at breakfast. He said that with the economy growing steadily stronger he had the ``easiest'' job in government.

This is a far different Bentsen from the one who appeared at a Monitor breakfast about four months into the Clinton administration. President Clinton was bumbling at the time; there already was talk in Congress and the press of an ineffective and perhaps failing presidency. Some people close to the Treasury secretary were saying he wished he had stayed in the Senate, and that he might be the first Cabinet appointee to leave.

However, the other morning he was the old Lloyd Bentsen, quietly cheerful and good-humored. He was just back from a trip to the Far East, but the wear of travel didn't show. He bantered back and forth with his questioners. As the reporters exited someone said, ``Bentsen's found his happy home.'' Well, maybe so. At least for now.

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At this breakfast, Bentsen allowed himself to muse a bit about the state of Clinton's presidency. He attributed Mr. Clinton's unsteady start to what must be expected of a new president, who has responsibilities far removed from those of governing a small state. He added that, now that Clinton has the lay of the land, his presidency will continue to do well.

Someone asked whether Clinton, like former President Bush, might take a popularity plunge before the end of his term. Bentsen said ``no,'' that a buoyant economy would do much to prevent a decided drop-off in public approval. Here the Treasury secretary was revealing much more than his own transformation from bearish to bullish on the presidency. He was underscoring a new, confident viewpoint that pervades this administration, from Clinton on down.

Bentsen had to excuse himself early from this recent breakfast in order to meet with the president. He said the subject of the meeting would be Japan; it was easy for us to guess that this would be an important and perhaps historic White House session from which the president would decide whether he would get tough on Japan for not providing greater access to Japanese markets.

We pushed Bentsen a bit on this subject to gain insight into what the decision would be. He didn't help much. But he did clearly reveal his and the administration's frustration when he complained about Japan's inflexibility on making such concessions.

Bentsen may have recommended to the president that it was time for a showdown with Japan. We do know that, shortly after Bentsen's meeting with the president, Clinton indicated that trade talks with Japan had broken down and that trade sanctions on Japan might well lie ahead.

If Bentsen at breakfast indeed provided insight into the new mood and outlook of the administration, and particularly the president, what are we to make of it?

Do we have a president who, looking at the public opinion polls and the strengthening economy, is going to be more resolute, especially in foreign affairs? Will a new confidence lead him away from a foreign policy that, up to now, has been marked by a tendency to blow hot one moment and cold the next?

Will he become a stronger president, one who will be regarded as courageous and firm? Or will his reputation as a risk-taker on domestic matters now surface in dealing with crises abroad? Could it be that he will become overly daring, overcommitting the United States abroad?

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