Clinton's Asia Trip: It's Not `Just the Economy' Anymore

CLINTON administration officials seem confused and uncertain about how Americans see their country's role in the "new world order." For most of their brief stay in office so far, these officials have described the public as exhausted by five decades of uninterrupted international leadership and wanting to concentrate on domestic needs. But now some in the administration appear to be reversing themselves. Witness the attention President Clinton's publicists lavished on every aspect of his role in last wee k's G-7 summit in Tokyo.

Writing in the July/August issue of Public Perspective magazine, political correspondent James A. Barnes describes the conclusion many Democratic strategists mistakenly took away from the 1992 campaign. Following the Gulf war victory, President Bush for a time looked unbeatable, but his seemingly unassailable advantage crumbled quickly. To Democrats, this proved that the public had become preoccupied with economic worries and wanted the president to be preoccupied with them as well. All the good marks Mr . Bush received on foreign affairs ultimately didn't count for much.

According to the received wisdom early in the Clinton administration, the United States is now in a setting where many of the old rules no longer apply. "In the past," Clinton pollster and strategist Stanley Greenberg told Mr. Barnes, "foreign policy crises were situations ... [where] there were good guys and bad guys. Now each foreign policy event has its own circumstances where Americans can't determine the good guys from the bad guys, or the values that are at stake." In this post-cold-war world, Mr. Greenberg went on, "America is much more insular.... The primary job qualification for the president is whether he can restore America's prosperity."

This assessment dovetails nicely with the policy judgment of administration officials who say that domestic problems received short-shrift under Reagan and Bush and now need greater attention, and that a less activist US foreign policy accords well with world conditions.

Until recently, the president himself seemed to share those notions. In a press conference held May 7, for example, Mr. Clinton made the extraordinary observation that his job-approval rating was falling because he had "been forced to deal with a lot of other issues" besides the economy. "Most voters in this country don't like it when you spend any time on foreign policy because of the economic problems of the country," he said. It's unlikely Clinton now sees it that way. Even so modest and moderately su ccessful an incursion as the US cruise missile attack on the Iraqi intelligence agency headquarters on June 26 brought him favorable coverage and a moderate rise in his public-approval scores.

Whether it was this experience, the much-ballyhooed influence of David Gergen in White House councils, or some other combination of factors, the Clinton administration "worked" the president's Asia trip for every ounce of publicity it could offer - quite as assiduously as any Reagan publicity effort ever did.

The striking thing isn't that the administration may now be revising its earlier views, but that it ever thought it was good politics to confine presidential leadership largely to the domestic arena. Operating at home, the president is in a relatively weak position: Congress is at least his coequal; much of the most important domestic policy is made at the state and local levels; and armies of interest groups are readily mobilized to confront his every initiative.

This isn't to say that a president shouldn't try to lead in areas such as health care and tax policy. But from a purely political standpoint, his hand in domestic dealings is typically weak.

In contrast, any president of passing wit and will can be a dominant force internationally. As tired as the observation is, the US is the world's only superpower.

What's more, much of the world recognizes this and looks to America for leadership; witness the grumbling across Europe going into the G-7 meetings about the "vacuum" left by Clinton's reluctance to assert US leadership. Finally, Congress's position vis-a-vis the president is far weaker in foreign affairs than it is domestically.

Americans understand that the US has vital interests around the world. They see their country's influence as generally positive. And while they grumble periodically about the "burden" of world leadership, they wouldn't part with it for a moment. Bush lost the presidency in 1992, but it certainly wasn't because he led the US ably and energetically in the Gulf war.

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