How President Plays Outside the Beltway

Clinton traverses US this week to rally the public behind his agenda - and try to transcend scandals.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Danica Chronister and Marita Fliss are best friends. So, of course, these Kansas City high school girls had to buy matching outfits for this week's big event, the "Great Social Security Debate" featuring President Clinton.

Danica was dressed in a melon-green shift and Marita a powder-blue one. Both wore white platform - tall platform - sandals, sans scuff marks. They would have had new

earrings, too, but left them home in the rush to get ready.

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Behind the fashion statements, though, are two young Americans

who care deeply about a system that, unless reformed, won't be there for them when they eventually retire. The debate "is interesting," says Danica. "It affects my future."

Like Danica and Marita, Mr. Clinton is putting on a bit of a show this week, but also getting at some serious domestic issues. After a 12-day trip to Africa, and in the relative media quiet of the post-Paula Jones era, this is an opportunity for the president to trumpet pet issues - and try to solidify his political standing.

Monday was anticrime day, with an announcement on banning imported weapons. Tuesday was the town-hall forum on Social Security at a community college here. Wednesday he worked his No. 1 issue, education, in Chicago classrooms. Thursday he hosts college basketball players on the south lawn of the White House.

Yet even with the roadshow, the president still faces competition from allegations about his sex life. In a rebuke as sharp as Kansas City barbecue sauce, House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas this week called the president a "shameless person" before a group of Texas high-school students. "If it were me that had documented personal conduct along the lines of the president's, I would be so filled with shame that I would resign," he said.

Still riding high

Most Americans don't seem to agree. A Washington Post poll, conducted just after the dismissal of the Jones case, showed only 37 percent of Americans favoring resignation or impeachment if the president is found to have lied under oath or encouraged others to lie. Fifty-nine percent favored less severe options, such as a congressional reprimand, public apology, or no action at all.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia disagrees with Mr. Armey, but says he "represents a lot of people who feel very deeply."

That doesn't include many of the people here at the Penn Valley Community College gym. Most of those interviewed echo the president when they say they want to get on with the issues. "All this [scandal talk] is much ado about nothing," says Travestine Love, a proud matriarch to "seven greats and seven grands." Social Security, not the president's personal behavior, "is the issue here. This is people's lives that are at stake."

Yet there is a sense of realism among citizens, politicians, and analysts about what the president can actually do about some of the biggest issues.

On education, for instance, a White House official admits that, because of partisan politics, fulfilling the president's agenda to hire 100,000 new teachers, pay for school reconstruction, and institute national testing will be a "big fight" with the GOP-run Congress. With some heavy lifting, though, the administration may get lawmakers to go along with the president's plan for charter schools, the reauthorization of student loans, and his volunteer reading program.

Missing on agenda: Medicare

On another urgent issue, Medicare, the president has assigned a special commission to look into the financially troubled system. But he is leading no "great debate" on the problem - which bothers even some of his supporters. "Why is the president debating Social Security? Why not Medicare?" asks Robert Reich, labor secretary in Clinton's first term. The answer, he says, is tactics. "Social Security is easier" to solve.

It is true that there's bipartisan recognition of the long-term problems facing Social Security, and, as evidenced Tuesday, some agreement that income guarantees should remain. The Social Security crisis is also still a ways off (full payments to Americans are expected to last until 2029), and, in this new era of federal deficit control, appears solvable.

The president is well-positioned on the issue. He won't meet with congressional leaders to frame a plan until January - after the midterm elections. Until then, he'll lead more town-hall debates. Rick Blumhorst, an engineer from Paola, Kan., says he's "cautiously optimistic" that any reform will be effective. But he adds: "The president will commit to any issue that is politically expedient."

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