... as his national agenda - and power - weakens

Stymied by Congress and fighting the lame-duck image, Clinton has begungoverning by executive order.

One way to look at the ongoing budget debate is as an example of President Clinton's incredible shrinking agenda - and his diminishing power in Washington.

Even if he gets everything he wants - 100,000 new teachers, 50,000 cops, more foreign aid, and more environmental protections - this is just a remnant of his original wish list.

That list included a more substantial set of priorities: Social Security reform, a prescription-drug plan for Medicare, and a middle-class tax cut in the form of federally subsidized retirement accounts for Americans. The only life left in these ideas now may be as campaign issues for the 2000 election.

"It's inevitable, as the president's term closes down, that this is going to happen," says presidential scholar Martha Joynt Kumar. "His word will have less cachet with Congress. You can certainly see that he's less a part of the story today" as the focus shifts to the coming election.

Ms. Kumar's comments are perhaps a kind way of saying that Mr. Clinton's lame-duck period has set in. Or as today's high-speed youth might put it: Clinton is so 20 minutes ago.

Of course, the White House is fighting to reverse this image. Stymied by Congress, the president is governing by executive order, setting aside national forest land for conservation, for instance, and protecting the privacy of Americans' medical records. Indeed, Clinton says he'll be working for the American people up until the very end.

"He may be active down to the last day of his term, but that doesn't mean people will listen or respond," Kumar says.

He's talking, but who's listening?

That certainly has been the case so far this year. Most of the major items Clinton backed in Congress - from gun control to a patients' bill of rights to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty - have stalled or been rejected outright.

Responsibility for the weakening of Clinton's agenda can be pinned on the usual suspects: the impeachment aftermath, intense partisanship, a Republican-controlled Congress butting heads with a Democrat in the Oval Office, and, of course, the coming election.

These all work against Clinton, but so does his governing style, says presidential historian James MacGregor Burns.

By taking a moderate, centrist approach all these years, Clinton has undermined his ability to effect real change, Mr. Burns says. In the case of education, for instance, the president's push for 100,000 new teachers is merely an incremental step, considering the millions of students in the country, he says. It leaves the real problems in American education untouched.

"The more you push the little things, the more it takes the steam out of the big things," says Burns, author of a new book on the Clinton administration called "Dead Center." This helps explain why the president's current budget priorities are, in the larger context, "little things" and why his more ambitious agenda has collapsed.

Others point out that Clinton has been forced to take small steps because of the opposition-controlled Congress and the lack of public support for big, sweeping reforms (as witnessed by the downfall of health-care reform).

While acknowledging this, Burns counters that by failing to hammer home a few big ideas month after month, year after year, Clinton has missed the opportunity to educate America and establish broad policy goals that, if not enacted in his administration, could at least have been carried forward to the next.

Burns points to former Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt as leaders who "just raised the standards. They took very strong public stands on great moral issues. They got to be known and loved by a lot of people because they were so definite about what they wanted."

It's a little late to be switching styles, switching congresses is not an option, nor is turning back the clock on impeachment.

Analysts say this leaves Clinton little choice but to keep up his whirlwind pace of modest change, such as last week's announcement of a federal plan to study prescription prices.

Even in foreign policy, where Clinton faces challenging issues in Russia, China, and the Middle East, the opportunity for influence is diminished by his lame-duck status, says Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under President Carter.

Because there's no guarantee a future administration will endorse a Clinton policy, "long-range decisions are going to be viewed as doubtful," Mr. Brzezinski says.

Keeping hope alive

Still, the White House seems prepared to forge ahead anyway, planning presidential trips to Europe and possibly the Mideast and South Asia, as well as keeping the flame burning under its domestic agenda - as hopeless as that might seem.

As White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said last week: "We tried this year ... to do Medicare reform. Congress has taken a pass on it, just like it appears they may take a pass on a patients' bill of rights. They may take a pass on gun-control legislation. They've taken a pass on campaign finance. They may take a pass on minimum wage. These are all issues that are very important, and because Congress takes a pass, we're going to keep it center stage and keep presenting it to them."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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