As Legislative Year Ends, Clinton Looks More Like A Strong, Can-Do Leader

JUST a quick, three-to-five minute call to each side on Nov. 22 - no heavy lifting - and President Clinton could announce that strike-grounded American Airlines would be flying again this week during the busiest travel days of the year.

This is the kind of grace note Mr. Clinton seems to be hitting in the final moments of his ambitious first legislative year.

As Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine pointed out on Nov. 21, Clinton's first year was the most productive presidential start since President Dwight Eisenhower's first term 40 years ago.

It certainly has not been as effortless or as successful as bringing American Airlines' management and flight-attendants' union back to the negotiating table. (Outlook for further union action, Page 3.) But the president is ending the year, as Congress adjourns for Thanksgiving recess, much stronger than he began it.

The glow of his triumph on NAFTA last week helped to make over his reputation as a can-do political operator. ``Even my Republican friends say you have to hand it to him; he's getting in there and getting things done,'' says Vince Breglio, a Republican pollster. ``I think you would be hard-pressed to say that Bill Clinton isn't seen as a strong leader today.''

His leadership image is exactly what Clinton's own staff had identified as a key weakness in his early months as president. Ever since his economic stimulus proposals were gutted late last winter, says White House pollster Stanley Greenberg, ``people began to doubt he could get things done.''

BUT the president's climb up the learning curve has not charmed the multitudes. Going into the final week of legislation, Clinton's job approval rating in public opinion polls was tied with Ronald Reagan's during a recession year as the lowest of any postwar president at a comparable point in his tenure. A Washington Post-ABC News survey released Nov. 16 posted 49 percent approval.

By the time Congress went into its August recess after passing his budget by one grudging vote in the House, Clinton had an overall success rate in congressional votes of 62 percent, according to unpublished Congressional Quarterly tabulations.

This is a crude measure of success that calculates how often members of the House and Senate voted with the president's stated position. It does not weigh votes for the importance of the issue or how much compromise shaped it. But it puts Clinton's success rate in Congress at a similar level to the first-year President Bush, who faced an opposition party in both chambers. Going back to Eisenhower, only President Ford had a lower success rate in his first year.

Clinton's success improved markedly this fall. When Congress returns in January, he will have many of his highest-priority initiatives already under his belt.

On the budget, he has made projected deficit cuts through a combination of tax increases and spending cuts remarkably similar to those of Mr. Bush in 1990.

But unlike Bush, Clinton put all the new taxes, except his energy levy, on the wealthy. At the same time, he achieved a major expansion of the earned-income tax credit - a program that supplements the incomes of the working poor based on what they earn.

This promise of bringing ``tax fairness'' back after tax burdens had moved down the income distribution curve during the Reagan years was one of his earliest campaign themes.

He passed a national-service bill that will help participants pay for college, a program that is important to many of the moderate Democrats who support him.

He has yet to introduce his long-awaited proposals for ``ending welfare as we know it,'' one of the key promises that had defined him as a ``New Democrat.''

The big event, of course, is the overhaul of the health-care system. That battle is fully engaged now and will continue for months. The scope of that proposal alone defines Clinton's as an ambitious presidency, and even if the final outcome bears little resemblance to his own proposal, he is positioned to win credit for pushing the issue through to significant change.

Clinton also signed a series of bills that Congress had passed before, but Bush had vetoed, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and the ``motor voter'' bill to make voter registration more convenient.

At this writing, the crime bill approved by the House-Senate conference committee - but not yet seconded by the Senate - looks very much like the anticrime agenda in Clinton's campaign literature.

Some of these successes in the last week are likely to add some points to Clinton's public approval, but he still carries some baggage left from his campaign that has only grown heavier.

He has, for example, no hard-core base of support in the electorate and a very high proportion of the public have negative views of his trustworthiness.

``I don't think the public is terribly enamored of his style,'' says Victor Kamber, a Democratic lobbyist. ``He's a politician still in campaign mode.''

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