Clinton aims for 'do something' final year

Administration says president will still be a force at home; historians

History would tell President Clinton to prepare for a ho-hum final year in which he should concentrate on foreign affairs because there's little hope of getting anything done at home.

But Mr. Clinton, an avid student of presidential history, is paying this lesson no mind.

Rather, White House aides say to expect "surprises" in this final chapter of the Clinton administration. "The best way to prepare for this year is not to assume that you will find the model in previous presidencies," says Ann Lewis, counselor to the president.

Ms. Lewis and others in the administration say Clinton can break the mold set by his predecessors because he has a broad agenda which the country supports, because he is a master at communicating that agenda, and because Congress won't want to be stuck with the "do nothing" label in an election year.

But there are precious few outside the White House who believe these arguments will amount to anything more than modest gains for the president. "There's not much hope for Bill Clinton next year," says George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Given the stakes in Congress and the real possibility of the GOP retaking the White House, "there's no reason why Republicans would be helpful," says Mr. Edwards, adding, "every presidency by this stage has run out of steam."

Trying to avoid gridlock

While pending elections are generally considered to be an invitation for gridlock in Washington, the White House points to a chapter in recent political history as proof that it doesn't always work that way.

In 1996, for instance, Congress passed major welfare reform, increased the minimum wage, and overhauled telecommunications laws - all in the face of a presidential election.

Indeed, another increase in the minimum wage is back on the president's agenda under the category of unfinished business. So are gun control and a patients' bill of rights. "I think this could be an echo of '96," says one senior White House official. "We're all fighting for that swing of 20 or 30 seats [in Congress] that can go either Republican or Democrat, and I think these people will be going to their leadership and saying: 'You've got to give me something.' And it could be guns, it could be education, it could be a patients' bill of rights."

Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the Heritage Foundation here, says that Republicans will try to "inoculate" themselves against the do-nothing label by passing, say, managed-care reform or gun-control legislation - but there's no guarantee their versions will appeal to the president. In the end, he says, the motto of the year will be "do no harm," with neither party willing to take big risks when high-stakes campaigns are in full swing.

Analysts such as Mr. Wittmann say the president should rip a page from his own political handbook and steal as many issues from Republicans as he can. One ripe for the taking is the elimination of the tax burden known as the marriage penalty.

Executive orders expected

Indeed, as the White House prepares its 2001 budget, it's wrestling with the tax-cut issue. Its own tax cut, in the form of subsidies for pension savings, went nowhere this year. But when it left the door open for other modest tax cuts, Republicans didn't bite and instead held out for their $800 billion cut - which the president vetoed as fiscally irresponsible.

"The question is, what are the Republicans going to do? Probably come back with some tax cuts. How do we deal with that?" the senior administration official asks.

In the meantime, what the president can't get done legislatively, he will try to accomplish by executive order. At the last Cabinet meeting, Clinton directed that all members look within their agencies to see what can be done without congressional approval. It's here that analysts expect the "surprises" promised by the administration, with the most recent example being the threat of a federal lawsuit to force changes in the gun industry.

Congress won't give much

So far, the White House has given only a limited sneak preview of next year's new business, saving its fire for the State of the Union address.

But this year is proof that whatever Clinton proposes, if it involves Congress, he shouldn't expect much. None of the president's big-ticket items got through this year, though the White House likes to describe modest successes such as funding for 100,000 more teachers or 50,000 cops as major wins.

"The president's domestic agenda is a political charade," says Robert Dallek, presidential historian. The focus next year, he says, should be "foreign policy, foreign policy, foreign policy."

On that front, the greatest opportunity lies in Mideast peace, and the greatest challenges in Iraq, Russia, and China, say foreign policy experts.

They also see potential for warmer relations with Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. Clinton is also expected to visit India, the first presidential trip there since Jimmy Carter's in 1978.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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