Clinton's First 100 Days: It's Been a Bumpy Ride

PRESIDENT Clinton is a little over a week away from the purely imaginary marker that has measured presidential debuts ever since Franklin Roosevelt - the first 100 days.

In Mr. Clinton's debut, he has impressed many with his energy and engagement, especially on the economy. But his honeymoon is over already, one of the shortest on record.

Republicans have formed a united front against him, and only Democrats so far break ranks. His public disapproval ratings are at historic highs for such a new president. He has raised expectations dangerously high for a short-order, turnkey health-care plan. And he spent the last week bemoaning the very government gridlock he promised to end.

On the other hand, Clinton - nothing if not a quick study who can take stock of his own mistakes - may already have learned some lessons he can now turn to his profit. And even his ideological opponents are impressed with many of his political talents.

In the middle of last week, Clinton began to correct a major miscalculation of his first months in office - not seeking Republican support for his economic plan. His appeal had been strictly partisan, and he succeeded in unifying the Republicans against him even more than the Democrats behind him.

"I think he appreciates [his need to work with Republicans] now," says Roger Porter, domestic and economic policy adviser in the Bush White House.

Clinton wrote to five of the more liberal Republican senators last week, seeking support for his economic stimulus bill, then offered to cut a quarter of the spending out of the package. So far, Republicans have refused to abandon their Senate filibuster for any compromise. Some Democrats now suspect that only $4 billion in unemployment benefit extensions will pass from the original $16.3 billion spending package.

The importance of the early months of an administration lies in the opportunity for a president to establish a reputation as someone who can get things done.

"There is no question that the political system is much more responsive to presidential leadership and direction at the outset of a term than further along," says Dr. Porter.

And success breeds success. "If there's anything that other politicians appreciate it is to be associated with a winner," Porter adds.

Although Clinton passed a budget resolution containing the general principles of his economic plan faster than any recent president, he lost the glow of political invincibility surprisingly early.

Former House Republican Vin Weber, now an official in a new conservative policy organization, warned his former colleagues on Capitol Hill as Clinton took office "that they would have to live through six very difficult months." Instead, he now says, they have not even had two difficult months.

Clinton began his presidency with the highly divisive gays-in-the-military question. He tried to move past it, but it is widely thought to be at the heart of negative public appraisals of his job performance, appraisals not seen in decades this early in a presidency.

Not even the never-elected Gerald Ford, just after he had pardoned Richard Nixon, was viewed as unfavorably by the public. A Gallup poll taken at the end of March showed him with 52 percent approval and 37 percent disapproval of his job performance. More strikingly for such a new president, the four in 10 Americans with strong views about Clinton are evenly split, for and against.

PUBLIC opinion is fickle, but it has an impact on how much fear and respect members of Congress hold for the president. Clinton is not striking fear into the hearts of opponents on Capitol Hill.

His high point was his speech to a joint session of Congress Feb. 17, largely ad-libbed, in which he introduced his economic plan. Vast majorities of the public favored the plan, according to surveys taken following the speech, even though it contained tax increases.

"He has, for the most part, remained focused on his economic plan," notes Porter. "That is wise and prudent and he deserves high marks for it."

Clinton has made an impression for his sheer ability, if not his performance. Fred Greenstein, a Princeton political scientist, sees in Clinton "someone who is enormously smart and facile and knowledgeable about at least the surface aspects of policy." But he also sees signs of arrogance and a too-centralized presidency, where the president needs stronger, more experienced subordinates, and he needs to delegate more to them.

Clinton is a student of the early successes of Ronald Reagan and the early failures of Jimmy Carter. Mr. Reagan chose a few clear and simple priorities early on, and pursued them. Mr. Carter had a teeming agenda. Clinton has struggled to pare his agenda down, but his is a more difficult task than Reagan's.

"The problem is that his messages are much more complex," says Colin Campbell, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University.

For whatever reason, Clinton has found it difficult to win converts to his stimulus package. Even Dr. Greenstein, who considers himself a liberal Democrat, has found Clinton's arguments "unpersuasive."

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