For US presidents, it's an era of modest agendas

Clinton, like previous two chief executives, feels constraints of tightbudgets and divided government.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Call it the incredible shrinking presidency.

With the exception of Social Security reform, President Clinton's agenda for this year is a plateful of mostly pea-size initiatives, many of them recycled from the past. It's the same description political analysts used last year. And the year before that.

But the modesty of the presidential agenda is not unique to Mr. Clinton. In fact, say political observers, he represents a long-term trend in the presidency - agendas that have been shrinking for the better part of two decades.

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While the agenda is just one measure of a president's stature, "something significant has been going on," says Paul Light, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution here. "The president's agenda has been getting smaller."

Whether this is good or bad depends on whether you think government should be activist or should just stay out of people's lives as much as possible.

Certainly President Bush, who offered the smallest number of major proposals since President Kennedy, was not aspiring to lead an activist government, says George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. The trend asks the question "of whether you want government to do things or not," he says.

Tally of proposals

By Mr. Light's count, which goes back to the start of the Kennedy administration, Clinton's first term produced 33 significant proposals - by far the smallest Democratic agenda in 30 years. While he has not tracked all proposals in Clinton's second term, Light says the trend is holding.

But Mr. Bush, a Republican, proposed an even smaller number, just 25. President Reagan, despite his large tax cut and sizable defense buildup, made only 30 significant policy suggestions in his first term, and none in his second, says Light.

Compare this with the 1960s, when blockbuster initiatives were hurled down Pennsylvania Avenue toward Congress: the Peace Corps, under Kennedy, and Medicare, urban renewal, civil rights, voting rights (to name a few) under President Johnson. In just his full, four-year term, Johnson made nearly three times the number of significant proposals that Clinton did in his first term.

Meanwhile, both Presidents Nixon and Carter continued the activist trend, according to Light, who finds the post-Carter drop-off in proposals troublesome.

"There's less and less room for the president, in particular, and I think we could extend this to Congress, to produce meaningful legislative change," says Light. "It's not clear to me that the number of problems that need solving has gone down at all. In fact, we could make the argument that the number has gone up." He lists inner cities, transportation, and medical research among the problems that could use creative, sweeping solutions.

Clipping presidential wings

But for many reasons, recent presidents haven't been able to boost the number of major initiatives, even if they wanted to. Divided governments and budget constraints, Mr. Edwards says, have clipped the wings of recent presidents.

But those aren't the only explanations. Clinton swung big at health-care reform in his first term - and missed so badly that voters in 1994 handed control of the House and Senate to Republicans.

That debacle revealed that much of America was opposed to major government influence in their lives, says Robert Dallek, presidential historian at Boston University. "These are different times. The Congress and the country are not all that receptive to bold ideas."

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