WASHINGTON — The White House has a new strategy for President Clinton's second term. Call it "Back to the Future."
Knowing that successful second terms often hinge on a strong fifth year, senior administration officials are calling for Mr. Clinton to spend little time basking in a post-inaugural glow. Rather, the tactical shift is expected to mirror an approach that served Clinton well last fall - an aggressive pursuit of his agenda, heavy doses of bipartisanship, and a packed calendar.
"I think the most important strategy is the one we saw during this past campaign year. The president goes out and talks to the ... people about what is most important in their lives," says Anne Lewis, White House deputy director of communications.
In February, Clinton will embark on a cross-country campaign to lobby Americans - and not only on behalf of specific policy objectives. His trip is also designed to firm up what the president calls the "vital center," a segment of the political landscape that is sagging under the weight of partisan polarity. Among the pared-down list of White House priorities: a balanced federal budget, continued overhaul of the welfare system, education reform, and several foreign-policy initiatives, including Bosnia and the Middle East.
While the strategy may help maintain momentum in a second term, it is also a calculated effort to offset negative images generated by the legal and ethical problems faced by the Clintons.
"It's a different strategy," says Ron Faucheux, publisher and editor of Campaigns and Elections magazine. "How things affect Clinton today is very different. Now he is playing for long-term success for his administration, long-term legal protection from investigations and lawsuits."
As a result, veteran senior staff are trying, too, to put Clinton in more settings where his actions are perceived as presidential, including Friday's award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former Republican opponent Bob Dole.
Maintaining a strong message is expected to be increasingly important in coming months, as long-simmering legal and ethics probes surrounding the Clintons begin to heat up. For one, the Supreme Court is expected to rule by June whether the case against the president brought by Paula Jones can go forward while Clinton is in office. A ruling for Mrs. Jones may result in the president having to answer an embarrassing civil suit in which Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, has charged him with sexual harassment.
Well before then, however, a string of investigations led by Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr could result in legal action. Mr. Starr's investigation into Arkansas-based Whitewater land transactions has mushroomed into several other probes surrounding events that have occurred since Clinton has been president. Among them are the gathering by a Clinton appointee of confidential FBI files on as many as 900 Republicans, and the firing of the White House travel office staff in 1991.
Moreover, Republicans are considering holding hearings on campaign contributions that clouded last November's elections for Democrats.
The potential snags cast a long shadow over the president's second term and, ultimately, his legacy. But if a good offense is the best defense, the White House strategy may be paying off. Last week, as attorneys for Paula Jones argued their case before the Supreme Court, Clinton was bestowing the Medal of Honor on African-American soldiers who served during World War II. Most front-page photos the next day featured the East Room event.
Given the hothouse environment in which ethical issues are being scrutinized in Washington, including the actions of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the White House is taking the right tack, says Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University. "The public has tuned out. It's tired of politics and carping politicians. People begin to believe they are all the same, whether it's Gingrich, Clinton, or Nixon ... that they are all on the take for themselves. If this is the public sentiment, the less you talk about it the better."
But Mr. Wayne says the picture will change dramatically if Starr issues an indictment against Hillary Rodham Clinton for her role in the Whitewater deal. The first lady has already testified before a grand jury. In that case, "things will be very difficult," Wayne says.
But mothballing Clinton's legendary rapid-reaction machine, and replacing it with a hunker-down-and-push-the-agenda strategy, won't be enough to satisfy the public, says Mary Crawford, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. The administration has tried to "make it appear that all these problems were due to partisan politics," Ms. Crawford says. "They now have to deal with law and ethics, and their efforts to cloud them will fail."