Clinton to Push Middle-America Agenda In Effort to Retake Momentum From GOP

REMEMBER the ''new covenant'' and the ''middle-class bill of rights?''

They're back. Two-and-a-half months after President Clinton highlighted his plan to help the middle class through tax changes and enhanced educational opportunity, the administration is again pushing those themes.

Starting with Vice President Al Gore's speech at the National Press Club on April 3 and followed by interviews and speeches by other top officials, Mr. Clinton's troops are aiming a one-two punch at the Republican Congress's 100-day Juggernaut: A lot of what the House GOP is proposing is unfair to middle America, they're arguing, and, by the way, we have our own agenda, too.

Clinton will finish off the week of message-mongering with a speech from Dallas.

But during the 100 days, in which the Republican House has passed all but one of the provisions in the Contract With America -- and will vote on the last, tax cuts, on April 5 -- Clinton has kept a low profile, ceding the news media spotlight to the big political story taking place down the street.

Was this a smart idea? Pundits disagree.

''I would have thought he could have been more out front on issues where he didn't have a problem with the Republican position,'' says George Edwards III, head of the presidential studies program at Texas A&M University. ''It's become a classic case of a clerical presidency.''

President lies low

The president has long been a supporter of banning unfunded mandates, federal requirements handed down to states and localities without appropriated money, and the line-item veto, a powerful tool that allows the president to strike down individual spending items.

But during congressional debate on those items, he lay low. His signing of the unfunded-mandates bill garnered little attention.

When the House debated welfare reform, it would have been bad for Clinton to be seen as a ''hindrance,'' Professor Edwards says.

''But he could have gotten out front, set some terms of debate,'' especially given that less than a year ago he had announced his own plan for welfare reform. ''That's a reasonable gamble,'' he adds.

Some Democrats have suggested that the best strategy is to sit back and let the Republicans make mistakes. ''It's possible the Republicans will do themselves in,'' Edwards says.

''But what happens if they don't screw up? I don't see how the Democratic administration will get any credit for what the Republicans have done.''

Clinton climbs in polls

Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., argues Clinton has benefited from lying low. Polls show the president's approval rating creeping upward, while House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia has struggled with public-opinion ratings.

A Time/CNN poll taken last week showed the president neck and neck with congressional Republicans (42 percent vs. 41 percent) on the question of who is more trusted to ''deal with the major issues facing the country.''

But those numbers represent a 12-point gain for Clinton since early December, and a five-point drop for the Republicans.

Professor Wayne sees a threefold Clinton strategy at work:

First, to position himself to take part of the credit for getting along with the Republicans, to be seen meeting cordially with Gingrich.

Second, to position himself and his party as moderates, champions of the middle class (with, for example, the proposal to boost the minimum wage).

And third, to play on his strength of empathy, by harping on a Republican welfare reform that critics say is mean, and by defending Social Security for the retirees.

But all of this has been done in a relatively low-key fashion, a welcome switch for a leader who spent his first two years as an ''overexposed, plebeian president,'' Wayne says.

''He's begun to play a little more on the ceremonial and symbolic,'' such as last week's trip to Haiti to watch United States forces transfer authority to an international force. Next month's trip to Russia also allows Clinton to look presidential in a foreign setting, he says.

Veto pen in pocket

But just as the Senate has yet to vote on much of the House Republicans' agenda, so too has Clinton yet to brandish a veto pen. On welfare reform, for example, the speculation is that Clinton is pursuing a ''soften and sign'' strategy -- count on the more-moderate Senate to smooth over some rough edges on the House bill -- rather than veto whatever comes out of a House-Senate conference.

The danger for the president is that he comes across as just a pale imitation of the Republicans. They propose regulatory reform; he proposes his own version. They propose tax cuts; he comes back with his own.

But meanwhile, on the last weekend of the 100-day marathon, the first family was nowhere to be seen in Washington, as the president golfed in Arkansas, and his wife and daughter charmed the masses in South Asia.

Not that the White House sat completely empty: On Sunday, the cast of Oliver Stone's next movie, about former President Nixon, was taking a private tour of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- just ''getting a feel for the place,'' an administration insider says.

Conspiracy theorists, beware.

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