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Behind White House Role As Pitchman for US Firms

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''Our choice is real simple,'' Mr. Garten says, ''to be ideological about it and say the US government has no role [in securing a US foothold] or to look at it more realistically, and say 'this competition is absolutely brutal' '' and tap the financial, political, intelligence, and diplomatic resources the US government has to offer.

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The Clinton team, of course, says it has chosen the latter course -- leading, among other things, to the use of spies. As recent French allegations about the CIA's economic espionage seem to indicate, US government agents now routinely set out on tasks meant to help US business.

CIA officials have long said they have no desire to engage in specific snooping intended from the outset to benefit a single US firm. Nor does the intelligence community have any desire to swipe other nations' trade secrets. But the CIA agrees with many private-sector analysts that it can help out by providing ''defensive intelligence'' about a competitor's effort to edge out a US firm from a contract, a country, even an entire market.

This strategy worked well for the Raytheon Company, a Massachusetts-based defense firm, when the CIA informed the US firm that a competitor, France's Thomson CSF, was bribing Brazilian government officials in an attempt to win a $1.4 billion radar contract. Two years ago, US intelligence warned US aerospace firms planning to attend the Paris Air Show that they had been targeted by the French for espionage purposes.

The Clinton administration hasn't been shy about enthusiastically backing the sale of weaponry, either. The White House decided last month to remove official barriers to sales of fighter jets, tanks, and other offensive arms to former Soviet-bloc countries. At the time, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric Newsom insisted that keeping a critical base of US defense firms healthy is important to national security. But, he added, ''our goal here is simply to level the playing field for American companies.''

Washington bureaucrats-cum-business advocates are also struggling to ensure that US companies clawing for contracts abroad are not left hanging as their government-backed foreign competitors offer easy credit terms.

Last month, the US Export Import Bank and the Private Export Funding Corporation announced a new program to provide fixed-rate financing for foreign buyers of US exports. ''This administration is much more activist and aggressive than in the past,'' says Ex-Im chairman Kenneth Brody.

Clearly, the White House expects something back from all this activism. In a broad political sense, it enables Mr. Clinton to portray himself as a ''New Democrat,'' not tied to labor and traditional concerns. In a narrower sense, going to bat for business could win over a well-heeled and active segment of the US voting population: CEOs.

Indeed, even as Clinton's popularity sinks below 50 percent among average Americans, he gets a lot of backslapping support from US corporate leaders. Many private sector executives say that Clinton has done more to move this bastion of Republican support into his camp than any other president in recent history.

ROGER SANT, chairman of AES, an independent power producer, was himself an appointee in the GOP White House of Gerald Ford. But lately he and his colleagues have been hobnobbing with top US officials abroad. He says their recent trips with US Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary to Pakistan, India, and China have been a boon for their businesses.

''When I call an embassy now, I get an ambassador, and the ambassador wants to help. These guys are all revved up to assist the business community to the point that you wonder how they got their Democratic label,'' says Mr. Sant. ''I've never seen anything like this in any administration.''

Many of Clinton's most important fund-raisers from the 1992 campaign were given jobs as business liaisons for the Treasury, Defense, and Commerce departments or positions at the Democratic National Committee, where they have been working to cultivate contacts. Already, business leaders say, the White House is starting to call in its chits for their financial help.

US trade representative Mickey Kantor, the financial manager of Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, does expect plenty of big business backing. ''The president had significant support out of the business community in 1992,'' he says. ''I think he'll have significant support in 1996.''