Clinton defies lame-duck label

He pushes activist domestic agenda, unlike earlier two-term presidents

In some respects, President Clinton is following the classic profile of a lame-duck president.

He's focused heavily on foreign affairs, as his triumphal tour in Europe this week shows in the wake of the Kosovo conflict. But he's finding less success at home, as epitomized by his stinging defeat on gun control in Congress.

As America has come to learn, however, Mr. Clinton defies definition as a "classic" president, and the lame-duck label is no exception. In sharp contrast to other two-term chief executives, Clinton is pursuing an activist domestic agenda in his final years in office with an eye toward rehabilitating his legacy - despite the tensions with a GOP-controlled Congress.

"He is different than any modern day president, in being so active and in having so much energy at a time when he should be depressed and not pursuing anything," says James Thurber, director of the center for congressional and presidential studies at American University here.

Despite impeachment and a war, Clinton still managed, for instance, to take the initiative after the Littleton, Colo., shootings. He started a national campaign against youth violence, pressed gun control in Congress, and encouraged movie theaters to card youths at the box office.

His job-approval ratings, while slipping 10 points since winter, top the seventh-year ratings of Ronald Reagan and are on par with Dwight Eisenhower's, the only other two-term presidents since World War II. Nor is he giving up on some of the more contentious domestic issues.

"As soon as he comes back from Europe, you're going to see him focusing his attention more and more on our domestic agenda," says Ann Lewis, counselor to the president.

She ticks off a list of items awaiting the president's attention: strengthening Social Security and Medicare by saving the surplus, formulating a prescription-drug plan for Medicare, drafting new environmental rules, and boosting urban and rural economies. "Our view is that we've got a year and a half of this presidency, and the president has told us he expects us to be working hard every day of that year and a half," says Ms. Lewis.

Both Eisenhower and Reagan spent their last two years heavily focused on foreign affairs, and were "much more passive in dealing with the presidency than Clinton," says Bert Rockman, a University of Pittsburgh professor who is writing a book on Clinton.

Eisenhower was caught up in the crisis created by the downing of an American spy plane over the Soviet Union, while Reagan moved the United States toward arms control and warmer relations with Moscow.

Faced with opposing parties controlling Congress, "both were content to let things wind down," says John Kessel, professor of politics at Ohio State University in Columbus. In his last year, for example, "Ike was really looking forward to his farewell address."

Not Bill Clinton.

For starters, Clinton is decades younger than these two Republican cold warriors. Also, both Eisenhower and Reagan had significant careers before becoming president and felt content with their legacy and role in public life, says Mr. Kessel.

Clinton, on the other hand, is in desperate to try to overcome his unique and ignoble place in history as the first elected president to be impeached.

And then there's just the Clinton way of doing things. "He's had a bushel-basket-full of programs ever since you can remember. He's not going to let up on this at all. It's habit," says Kessel.

This is not to say that foreign affairs won't play a major role in Clinton's remaining 18 months. The US is indefinitely committed to peacekeeping in Kosovo, and commentators have coined the phrase "the Clinton doctrine" to describe US military intervention in humanitarian crises.

But it's the bushel-basket approach that will govern what he does domestically. According to analysts, the president will likely continue to push a plethora of small initiatives, hyped by the White House to appear larger than they are. While he may make headway on raising the minimum wage, or a patients' bill of rights, analysts don't expect significant reform of Social Security or Medicare - two high-profile goals for Clinton's second term.

As the president's stunning gun-control defeat made clear, Congress is not willing to play along - even for an issue that enjoys public support, and even after extensive personal lobbying from the president, who got up at 5 a.m. in Paris last week to phone wavering Democrats.

Impeachment and the coming elections are largely responsible for this. "Reagan didn't have this degree of personal animosity between the leaders of Congress and the president," says Marshall Wittmann, congressional analyst at the Heritage Foundation here, adding that "the president doesn't have any personal loyalty."

Indeed, 45 House Democrats initially voted to weaken gun control, before the entire bill was defeated. Wittmann says the Kosovo war closed whatever window Clinton and Congress had to reform entitlements.

This leaves the president with little choice but to use his veto powers, his bully pulpit, and executive orders to get what he wants. While these tools are not enough to enact major reforms, they could advance a limited domestic agenda, and turn Clinton into at least a sprinting lame duck.

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