Wielding the Tools

IT must frustrate President Clinton to know that he has the basic political tools and skills to get the job done but is having such a difficult time bringing them to bear. It certainly is frustrating to watch.

In his own office operation, his staff has mishandled the replacement of workers at the White House travel office, apparently unconcerned about the potential for conflict of interest in naming as an interim replacement a travel agency that employed one of Mr. Clinton's cousins. The White House has since reversed that decision. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles to generate support for his economic package, Air Force One sat on the Tarmac delaying flights while the president got a $175 haircut.

On Capitol Hill he is being challenged by moderates in his own party on his budget package, a cornerstone of his domestic program. The United States House takes up the tax portion of the package on Thursday. Then it moves to the Senate, where it is facing opposition from moderate and conservative Democrats.

Abroad, he has decided to back down from a strong proposal to help end the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Unable to convince Western allies to support his proposal, he decided to fall in line with them in a plan announced during the weekend that in effect grants Bosnian Serbs the territory they have gained through "ethnic cleansing."

One can take hope in the ability of this president to bounce back from adversity and learn from past mistakes. But some of the best examples of both stem from his days as the governor of Arkansas, where his defeat after a first term taught him lessons that ultimately helped propel him through four additional, generally successful terms. As head of the world's remaining superpower, however, he hasn't that luxury of trying again after a one-term hiatus.

Yet it is still much too early to write this presidency off. Indeed, the nation cannot afford to do so, especially during this period of fundamental change at home and around the world.

For Clinton, the need is to regain his philosophical and political bearings, articulate them, and bring his administration's actions into line with them. In some respects he has tried to do this, most recently in speeches that sounded moral, even religious themes. They call to mind President Carter's "malaise" speech. Yet Carter's case showed that the problem he identified arguably lay less with the electorate and more with him. Either way, Clinton cannot afford a similar mistake.

His political problems in Congress and in the polls stem from his apparent shift away from the centrist base that carried him to office. His surest course is to return to that base. Building on it would do more for him that a June full of commencement speeches.

Americans want this president to succeed. And as Bush media adviser Sig Rogich has said, "Bill Clinton has a lot of time to run this around."

We hope he does. It would be unfortunate if lost opportunities left the $175 haircut at the end of the runway to become Clinton's equivalent of Carter's "killer rabbit."

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