LIKE President Carter's early stumbles with Congress, like President Reagan's early success in cutting taxes, President Clinton's battle for his economic package can die cast the character of the rest of his term.
Mr. Clinton built a reputation in Arkansas for a cautious, conciliatory style of governing.
Nothing could be more different from the risky gambit he is laying out tonight (Feb. 17). Clinton is staking the prestige of his presidency on a tough battle to win.
The stakes are arguably higher for Clinton's clout and his future ability to pursue an agenda than for the economy. The $31 billion stimulus, even according to his own forecast, amounts to little more than a minor adjustment to the economy.
The White House estimates that its package will stimulate the creation of 500,000 new jobs by late 1994. If so, it would lower the unemployment rate by roughly half a percentage point. Some economists, however, expect that it would take much longer for so many jobs to result from the stimulus.
The president's speech to a joint session of Congress Feb. 17 is only the main play in a full-court press of both Congress and the public. During the preceding week, Clinton invited every Democrat in Congress, as well as Republican leaders, to the White House in classroom-sized groups for 90-minute sessions on the economy.
Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky, as he left one such meeting in the West Wing Feb. 15, said that among the presidents he had known since Richard Nixon, none knew "more statistics, more numbers, more people" than Clinton or were willing to invest as much energy and stamina in pitching his package.
The parts of the package that will cause the most political difficulty, says Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, who is chief deputy majority whip, will be the higher taxes on Social Security benefits for high-income people, the energy tax increases, and spending cuts that affect individual congressmen's favorite programs.
"I think we can pass it, but I think the president is going to have to invest a lot of time and a lot of political capital," says Mr. Richardson. "This is going to be the vote of the century."
CLINTON'S model for political technique is Mr. Reagan, whose early success in pushing Congress to cut taxes cast an aura of effectiveness around a presidency that actually won few other battles after 1981. But Clinton, who is essentially undoing what Reagan wrought, has a more difficult task.
The economy was perceived to be far worse at the beginning of Reagan's presidency, creating an urgency for action, than it is now. Much of Clinton's appeal during his first televised Oval Office address Feb. 15 was that the economy was in crisis "despite talk of recovery."
Clinton's message is more complicated than Reagan's. Clinton needs on the one hand to create both jobs and growth, in keeping with the central theme of his campaign, and on the other hand to cut the deficit. In the short term, the two goals are somewhat at odds.
Clinton is working hard to sell his plan to the public.
But a complicated policy move is also difficult to explain in a way that captures the public imagination.
"I haven't seen him develop a real effective line," says George Edwards III of Texas A&M University, who has written extensively on presidential persuasion.
The White House lately abandoned the phrase prevalent in the presidential rhetoric of the early weeks of the administration, "shared sacrifice."
"The program is designed to provide direct benefits to the American people," explained White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos.
"Sacrifice doesn't accurately reflect what we're trying to do," he said.
Presidents have little ability to change people's minds, says Dr. Edwards. But they are very good at focusing the public's attention and structuring the debate, he says.
"He needs to convince the Democrats' constituency," says Edwards, meaning especially the so-called Reagan Democrats - working- and middle-class Democrats who supported Reagan in 1980 and 1984.
This is the populist audience Clinton is appealing to when he assured viewers of his Feb. 15 evening address that 70 percent of the tax increases will be paid by families with incomes over $100,000.
At stake, says presidential scholar Bruce Buchanan of the University of Texas, is the Clinton presidency, since the central battles of the first six months tend to set the tone for entire terms in office.
"The issue is not so much that he wins everything, but that he stand and fight, gets bloodied," says Dr. Buchanan. For Clinton to show early on that he believes in something more strongly than winning could be more important to his political success later than winning itself.