Bill Clinton, Changemaker
PRESIDENT Clinton has begun to find the range of his new role - facilitator of change in a changing America.
The new president has given some impressive leadership performances in the past two weeks. At the March 27 Gridiron Club gathering in Washington, the annual insiders' event to which the women too come stag, the Clinton Cabinet was put on display: It did reflect the mix of gender, ethnicity, age, and region that Mr. Clinton had promised.
Since the last such assembly a year ago under a Republican president, the shift to the new Democratic administration has been comfortably accomplished. Institutionally speaking, compared with the drama of Boris Yeltsin's tempestuous relationship with a Russian Congress that wants to oust him, this easy transition of power is remarkable. But beyond that, if it is true that American presidents often make their chief contributions in the fact of their election, Clinton's are evident in the sense of inclusio n he has offered to black, Hispanic, women, young, and even senior Americans in assembling his diverse Cabinet.
A few days later at Annapolis, Md., Clinton gave his first major foreign policy speech. At the Naval Academy, with the American Society of Newspaper Editors in attendance, he struck a statesmanly tone in addressing Russia's need for assistance. Here was a Democratic president whose chief interests are domestic assuming the responsibility for asking Americans to support a kind of assistance they do not like to give.
During the question period that followed, the president sharply rebutted an inquiry about alleged White House hostility toward the military. He was unafraid to show anger, and we shall see where this takes him. But here he was on the home turf of the military, many of whom question whether he is their kind of leader, and he handled it well.
Clinton's next stop, on Friday, April 2, was the "timber summit" in Portland, Ore. Televised live on C-Span, this event showed yet another facet of the new president's style. It was a listening session during which he, Vice President Gore, and several Cabinet members drew out the views of timber lords, sociologists, biologists, environmentalists, economists, labor spokesmen, and regular folk toward harvesting the Northwest's timber. The timber summit unmistakably put the topic on Clinton's own agenda. He
asked for an action plan in 60 days. Clinton had shown an ability to draw out analysis and proposals from a group in a focused but non-threatening way. He had taken his presidency on the road and given a hearing, on site, to those who feel deeply about the trade, jobs, natural resource, and community impacts of forest policy.
And then Clinton headed farther up the Pacific coast to Vancouver, British Columbia, for a series of one-on-ones with Mr. Yeltsin. These meetings went well enough, further aligning Clinton with the Russian president's leadership efforts. It was significant that the summit was held in Canada, the United States' most significant trade partner and a nation with which the US and Russia form a northern Pacific community.
It is ironic that, in polls, Americans appear to want to rate Clinton more highly for his handling of foreign policy than for his handling of the economy, on which he had campaigned.
Western Europe, as well as the United States, has been showing economic growth with little net creation of new jobs.
The '90s in some ways may be a repeat of the '40s. When peace came, the United States had to adjust to a peacetime economy; agricultural America sent such enormous migrations to the cities that suburbs had to be created to absorb them. Change has always meant some dislocation before new forms of opportunity become evident.
There is no going back. A new North America is forming, in which underlying geographical and cultural affinities call for a more unified approach. Allowing for environmental and job standards concerns, Clinton should support the North American Free Trade Agreement. The style Clinton has shown on the road the past fortnight should help him lead Americans through change even if "jobs" turns out to mean something different from what he had campaigned on.