Clinton Enters New Year With A Full Agenda

Despite lower public approval, he will tackle health-care and welfare reform

THIS year is the big one for the Clinton agenda. This is the year that the White House will devote its main energies to passing legislation that guarantees comprehensive health care to every American.

Barring a major war or other large-scale emergency, nothing in prospect for the Clinton presidency has the potential to rearrange American lives as much as the health-care legislation that President Clinton seeks to pass.

The outcome of the health-care debate may not determine Clinton's political fortunes outright. Other issues will arise, as will plenty of opportunities to finesse the conclusion of the debate itself. But this is the main event.

Clinton begins his second year having wrestled himself into roughly the same position of fragile strength in which he began his first year. That's the good news, since he launched his presidency into an immediate downward spiral in public approval, political success, and relations with the press that took most of the year to overcome.

Yet he is still not out of the hole he dug himself into through the course of last winter and spring as he struggled to put a Cabinet together and then to pass his economic plan.

His public approval, running at between 48 and 50 percent in recent polls, is about 10 percentage points less than when he took office. His approval rating is as low as that of any modern president beginning a second year in office. His numbers compare with those of Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan (as the country entered the 1982 recession). The number of people who disapprove of Clinton approaches the number who approve.

But Clinton still has can-do credentials after the last great battle of 1993, the vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement. His victory in that vote significantly improved public confidence in him as someone who can get things done - a confidence he lost early in the year when Congress stripped the stimulus spending out of his economic plan.

So he enters 1994 with some momentum. At least his numbers are moving in the right direction. The public has always given him credit for concerning himself with the problems that matter most to people.

Clinton's position stands in striking contrast to that of President Bush four years ago. Mr. Bush had a basic approval rating of around 70 percent; it shot up to 80 percent at the end of his first year after the invasion of Panama.

While he held the highest first-year approval rating on record, Bush had fewer legislative successes than most modern presidents and a tepid agenda for the future. Clinton is very nearly the opposite, and his agenda is an ambitious one.

Loose battle lines

It begins with health care. The legislation has already been introduced to Congress, as have a full array of alternative proposals. Battle lines have formed loosely but have not hardened. More than half of the co-sponsors of the White House health legislation in the House of Representatives have also co-sponsored a competing bill proposing a single-payer, Canadian-style system. Clearly, many positions are going to be compromised.

The White House has appointed New York lawyer Harold Ickes as a deputy chief of staff to run the health-care campaign. White House officials consider the setting up of single-focus war rooms to orchestrate campaigns to pass bills as among their most successful tactics. They will build on the tactic for the health-care effort. Republican strategy

How Clinton succeeds in the health-care debate will largely depend on how the choice came to be structured, says Texas A&M political scientist George Edwards III.

Clinton will focus on universal access and controlling costs. ``Republicans clearly want to hit him on the head with taxes,'' Mr. Edwards says. They will stress the heavy government role in the plan.

The Clinton agenda will also include changing the welfare system, according to aides. Welfare reform was one of the campaign promises that defined Clinton as a different kind of Democrat, with his vows of ``ending welfare as we know it'' within a two-year time limit. But his welfare plans have had to wait for a crowded agenda of other items this fall and will be secondary to health care in 1994.

Chief of Staff Thomas McLarty says the economy will continue to be a top item on the White House agenda, with an emphasis on long-term job creation.

Plans for '95 budget

The Clinton-proposed 1995 budget - for the year beginning Oct. 1, 1994 - would expand federal investment in certain education and technology programs by about 18 percent, while cutting the rest of the budget below this year's levels.

Nine of 14 federal departments have smaller budgets in the Clinton proposal next year than this year, according to budget director Leon Panetta.

The president will also continue to speak to strong public concern over personal security, the term the White House uses to cover issues from public safety to job security.

One of the first vehicles on this issue is the crime legislation that is now going to conference to reconcile House and Senate versions. It includes gun-control provisions as well as Clinton's proposal to put 100,000 additional police on the streets.

Once again, 1994 is an election year in Congress, a fact that will absorb much White House attention.

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