PRESIDENT Clinton's drive to put a majority coalition back together behind his economic plan this week is the most difficult and politically treacherous task he has faced yet.
A defeat now would knock out the centerpiece of his agenda as president. It could so weaken his ability to lead, says one moderate Democrat, that "it could mean a couple years of Congress-led government." That means, the Democrat adds, a Congress that produces little.
Pulling off a victory now, on the other hand, would "replenish his political strength" and greatly improve his position for introducing his health-care plan, says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.
The issue at hand that threatens to unravel Mr. Clinton's budget is the strong rejection last Thursday by key Senate Democrats of his energy tax proposal. If these senators, led by David Boren (D) of Oklahoma, can block the energy tax, that leaves Clinton with $72 billion over five years to make up in some other way to reach his deficit-cutting targets.
But the more basic problem for Clinton is that Republican arguments that his program is tax-heavy have so far won the battle for public opinion.
The moderate-to-conservative Democrats who have broken ranks in Congress reflect a public disillusion with Clinton that is especially concentrated among the 19 percent of voters that backed Ross Perot in the 1992 election. (Prospects for compromise, Page 2.)
In the modern presidency, says Democratic strategist Greg Schneiders, "your power, your leverage, is in nearly direct proportion to your poll numbers." Once Clinton's approval fell below 50 percent, he notes, it was "open season."
The challenge now, Mr. Schneiders says is, "Can the president turn the public against his opponents?"
To accomplish that, Clinton is getting several different kinds of advice. All of them are strategies for moving the debate over his budget and economic plan out from under the cloud of taxes.
One is to shift the focus back to jobs. Pollster Celinda Lake, who worked for Clinton during the campaign, argues that the job-creation aspect of the economic plan has been lost to the charge that it includes the highest tax increase in history. The jobs argument is especially potent among Perot voters, Ms. Lake says.
Another basic strategy is to focus on spending cuts. This is the view of many centrist Democrats. If the White House can come in with a compromise on the energy tax that involves further spending cuts, it can pick up further support both on Capitol Hill and from the public, they argue.
Clinton has already taken this advice, at least rhetorically, by stressing in the last couple of weeks his spending cuts and deficit cuts. He also has proposed a deficit-reduction trust fund to guarantee that new savings and taxes go to that purpose. In fact, however, Clinton's economic plan leans more heavily on new taxes than on spending cuts.
Clinton has also clearly been listening to those urging him to return to a strong appeal for "fairness" in taxes. Lake notes from her survey work that middle-class voters have a highly exaggerated view of how much the Clinton plan would raise their taxes. Clinton needs to make the case that the wealthy will pay the vast majority of the tax increase, she says.
Democrats are generally unanimous in urging Clinton as well to make an argument against gridlock, that government needs to enact his program to take some action against long-standing problems. "I think that resonates across the electorate," Mr. Marshall says. "It shifts the argument from the ideological terrain of tax and spend to the larger question of governance."
"Voters are increasingly concerned that nothing's going to happen," Lake says.
Lawmakers are concerned that the Clinton program will pass, and then nothing will happen. The great danger is a repeat of the budget deal of 1990, where taxes were raised, spending cut, and the deficit climbed anyway.
"What members are terrified of is facing the electorate in 1994 and 1996 without any real deficit reduction to show for it," Marshall says.