Clinton's Task: to Move Ahead

As the president struggles with Congress, analysts suggest that he could improve the prospects for all his programs - and that his critics should better understand compromise

PRESIDENT Clinton's relations with Congress have reached an important crossroad.

Like a frontier scout, Mr. Clinton is urging the lawmakers to plunge into uncharted territory. He wants Congress to rapidly approve the largest tax increase in history, sweeping health-care reform, and gay rights in the military.

On top of that, the president supports federal funding of abortions, campaign finance reform, free trade with Mexico, and a scaling back of cherished entitlement programs.

The trail looks politically dangerous. Many congressmen have balked, prompting reports of "panic" in the White House. There are predictions that the president will lose big chunks of his tax increase in the Senate, and that the abortion controversy could threaten his health-reform program.

What's to be done? A number of analysts, while praising Clinton's boldness, say it's time for the president to mount the "bully pulpit," and use all his skills to rally support. So far, he is falling far short, they say.

Without a clear, steady voice resonating from the White House, Clinton's public approval ratings are declining, analysts note. TV, radio, and newspapers are filled with negative stories. Political support has eroded, even among Democrats, on Capitol Hill.

Yet the battle is young. With the right steps, a number of experts say the president could sharply improve prospects for all his programs during the next few months. Among the actions he could take to bolster his prospects on Capitol Hill:

* Better communication. Political scientist James David Barber at Duke University says that like Ross Perot, the president must explain his programs again and again to the public in the clearest possible terms. Voters then can bring pressure on Congress.

* Clearer convictions. Stephen Salmore, an analyst at Rutgers University, says Clinton needs to decide which issues are "nonnegotiable" - ideals which he "would go to the mat for." Americans respect such conviction and strength. Sharing those principles with the voters could strengthen his hand.

* Shrewd priorities. To build momentum, Dr. Salmore suggests Clinton might pick some easier issues, win on those, then move on to the tougher ones.

* Higher vision. Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, says even when the president knows he cannot win on a difficult issue, he should praise what he thinks would be the highest possible standards. Though he might lose today, he could win tomorrow.

As public criticism mounts and Congress grows skittish, Stephen Hess, who served in the Eisenhower White House, suggests some of those who complain may not fully understand how Washington works.

For example, Clinton proposed tough new energy taxes on businesses, such as the aluminum industry. In the House Ways and Means Committee, the president agreed to weaken some of those taxes. Critics charged him with caving in. But Mr. Hess disagrees. Give-and-take is a way of life in Washington, he says.

"The notion that since Clinton is a Democrat and Congress has a Democratic majority, they would walk in lockstep to a glorious future" just isn't true, Hess says.

He continues: "The process ... is based on compromise. A president presents his program. The legislature and the opposition present theirs. Ultimately, if the president succeeds, the end product is more like what he proposed than what anyone else proposed.

"I find it powerfully strange that compromise is being used as a dirty word by people who should know better, and that the president is being faulted for compromise."

Many more compromises lie ahead. It is improbable that Clinton will win all he wants on health care, the budget, taxes, trade with Mexico, or gay rights.

The true measure of Clinton will be whether he gets the greater part of his proposals.

Dr. Barber says that with better use of his skills as a communicator, Clinton's chances of winning over Congress will improve significantly. The critical factor here is: "He must explain to the American people what is actually happening."

Barber, whose research shows many Americans don't understand basic concepts such as the "federal budget deficit," urges the president get down to the fundamentals, much like Mr. Perot does with his television infomercials.

In the clearest of terms, Clinton must lay out the nation's problems, as well as his administration's proposed solutions, to voters, he says.

Hess, who is an analyst at the Brookings Institution, agrees.

"Clinton has to bring the public along with him," he says. "In the first 100 days, he spent most of his time, quite rightly, developing a program. It is now pretty completely developed, except for health care, to come shortly."

Now the president must become a salesman who lays out his vision, Hess says.

Yet some experts are concerned about the next few months. Salmore, who concedes he looks at Clinton from his own Republican perspective, says that a month ago, "I thought Clinton was in trouble. Now I think he is in deep trouble."

Salmore says the issue which worries him most is Bosnia. The president had two basic choices there - to stay away, or go in.

"He managed to create a third and worse choice," Salmore says. "The situation required him to come down on one side, then convince the country and the Western alliance to go along. Instead, he came down on no side, and convinced the Serbs they can get away with anything they want."

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