THE other morning a reporter at a Monitor breakfast put this question to Democratic National Chairman David Wilhelm: ``Isn't it true that no Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has been reelected?'' Wilhelm nodded his head sadly. Truman didn't seek a second term after being hit hard by scandal. Kennedy didn't get a chance to run again. Johnson didn't seek reelection after getting mired down in the Vietnam War. And Carter lost to Reagan in his try for a second term.
Will President Clinton - off to a fairly strong start - fare better? Those of us who met with him for his year-end analysis were struck by one fact: Here was a president who saw his problems clearly and was as willing to talk about them as his hard-fought victories. If he is tripped up it won't, in my opinion, be because of a failure to seek self-improvement. When asked why fewer than half of those polled gave him positive ratings, he said: ``I don't know how to answer that. All I know is, I'll just keep working and keep dealing with it.''
This led to a kind of presidential monologue on the need, on his part, to catch and hold the attention of the American people, asking: ``How can I better communicate what I really need to say?''
First, he said, he must figure out what are the ``five or six things, or two or three things, the American people have to know and feel'' and ``not do or say things that get in your way.
``The most surprising thing to me was how hard it was to ... use the `bully pulpit' of the presidency to communicate to the American people what I was doing and have it register. For example, even on the day that the economic program passed, two-thirds of the American people thought it contained a major increase in income taxes for middle-class Americans....''
Second, Mr. Clinton indicated he was still feeling the sting of a presidency that faltered badly during its first months. He attributed his problems to the ``permanent campaign'' in which the media are involved. He said that when people come into office they ``should be given a reasonable amount of time to organize their affairs, nominate and put their team together, and put their programs out.''
Third, Clinton addressed the question, ``Do you spend enough time on foreign policy?'' this way: ``I am bewildered by this myth that I don't spend any time on foreign policy. I may not talk about it very much, except from time to time, but I believe in this year I probably will have received more foreign visitors than my predecessors in their first year. We try to do the very best we can, and we were making some organizational changes. But to say I haven't spent a lot of time on foreign affairs issues just isn't accurate.''
Finally, he is clearly concerned about how to set his spending priorities. To the question, ``How limited are you in initiatives you would like to take on?'' he replied: ``Let me just say that if we want to spend new money on things like retraining the work force, we're going to have to cut things elsewhere.... But let me say that I think it's very important to keep the deficit on a downward spiral. That's what's keeping interest rates down as we have growth pickup. [But] you don't want to make so much a fetish of deficit reduction that you promote a recession.''
Having a president who looks squarely at his problems and earnestly searches for answers must be encouraging to Democrats who hope for a second term.