It's Time for Clinton to Curb the `Hard Sell' Approach

NO president of my memory campaigns the way Bill Clinton does: all of the time. He never stops selling himself. He shakes hands, hugs (have we ever had a better hugger at the nation's helm?), and continually, it seems, is reaching out for affection and support.

This leads us to what might be called the "Clinton mystery." Why, it can well be asked, isn't this likable, warm president who shook hands so effectively in Japan and expressed his compassion so well to the Midwest's flood victims doing better in the polls? It seems that a lot of people who think Mr. Clinton is a great guy still don't think he is measuring up as a president.

Up until recently, I thought that Clinton's ignoring of the press was leading to many negative stories about him that he really didn't deserve. But David Gergen changed all that. For several weeks now Clinton's new availability to the scribes has resulted in the president clearly getting much better press. Reporters are a lot like other people: They respond favorably to kindness.

Yet Clinton's standing with the public remains low - particularly low for a president who needs public support if he is to be able to push through his economic and health-care programs to successful conclusions.

So the mystery remains. I think I got a clue to Clinton's problem the other morning when I sat at breakfast with Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen. Mr. Bentsen was there to sell the president's economic package. He spoke of the "fairness" in the proposed taxes that would make the "pain" involved palatable. He predicted that the congressional conferees would soon agree on a compromise bill and that Clinton would be signing it into law by early August.

Bentsen's "soft sell" was most persuasive. But the reason it was so effective was because this former, long-time member of the Senate from Texas is known for saying what he means and meaning what he says. He has long had the respect of the voters as well as the press. That's why his rejoinder to Dan Quayle in that 1988 vice presidential debate - that he knew Jack Kennedy and Quayle was no Kennedy - was so devastating.

Clinton is day in and day out a devotee of the hard sell. And he's very, very good at it. He's going to do this for this group and that for that group and change everything and make things better. And I think he genuinely does want to do all these things and does think he can do it. He does not suffer from lack of self-confidence. But the problem is that in his impassioned talks to woo the voters he sometimes gets carried away.

That led to Clinton's unfulfilled campaign pledge to give the middle-income group a tax break and his campaign-voiced opposition to a gasoline tax, which he's now accepting. Then after overpromising to the gays, he came up with a solution that left both the military and the gays less than satisfied. Without the overpromise Clinton's final ruling would doubtless win more public approval.

No one could expect Clinton to change himself or his style. Indeed, much about this president is very warm and appealing. I felt his special charm twice when he was a guest at Monitor breakfasts. It's a wonderful political asset, so helpful in garnering votes and then, after election, in persuading legislative bodies.

But now that Clinton has won everything he could ever have wanted in public life, the presidency, he needs to know that he no longer has to keep reaching out so hard for support. He doesn't have to become a low-key Bentsen or a succinct Mike Mansfield. But, as they might put it in Arkansas, he might try to be a tad bit restrained.

It's still very early in Clinton's term. He still has plenty of time to settle in. Many people out there who now are among his critics want to like him. They can be won over and his presidency can be shored up.

Like Bentsen, Mr. President, you should say what you mean and mean what you say. And please curb some of that ebullience and hard sell. Just remember: You've made it. You're at the top. You don't have to keep striving to get there anymore.

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