An `All-Court' President

IN tennis, the ultimate achievement is to be an ``all-court player,'' equally effective at charging the net to hit winners or staying back to bash your opponent from the base line. Rather than concentrating on only one of these styles, the all-court player moves comfortably between them, using either technique depending on strategy, the opponent, and the court surface.

Not to wear out an analogy, but there is a lesson here for President Clinton. He seems to be stuck on the base line, content to hack away at domestic issues: a whack at health care, a lunge at welfare reform, a poke at crime. Only a crisis lures him into the uncomfortable territory at the net, foreign affairs. Here he arrives reluctantly and at the last moment, hoping to volley a quick winner, then hustle back to his comfort zone. But frequently, he fumbles one into the net: Haiti and Bosnia, for example.

In fact, according to press reports, many of Mr. Clinton's own foreign-service officers have lost confidence in his handling of world affairs, adding to a growing perception that he is either unwilling or unable to give proper attention to the subject.

Most frustrating in all this is that the president has the tools to be an effective leader on foreign policy. He is a quick study and easily grasps even the details of the debate. And when he wishes, he can be a masterly communicator, as his D-Day speeches recently demonstrated.

Perhaps he feels his 1992 mandate was to address domestic issues, especially the economy; or perhaps he is choosing to act where he thinks the need is greatest or where he can be most effective.

But there is no ``choice.'' Domestic and international issues form a seamless continuum: Certainly trade with China or Mexico affects American jobs. But security and international law make greater demands. If a crisis develops in North Korea, it will grab attention from health-care reform, no matter what Clinton does.

It is time for the president to boost his game to the next level. He must lead the nation's foreign-affairs debate. A recent shake-up among his lower-level foreign-policy advisers is one step only. But leadership is a task that cannot be left to subordinates. Americans want and deserve to hear from their president.

Reports that Clinton relies heavily on opinion polls to set policy add a troubling element. President Bush hit an all-time high in the polls and failed to win reelection. It is time for Clinton to assert his own vision of US overseas priorities and objectives and to be willing to defend it, not in ``sound bite'' drop-bys to talk shows or at photo-ops, but in substantial speeches and press conferences.

It is time, in short, to play an all-court game. The 1996 election is still a long way off. If the president will but shoulder the task, the only poll that counts will take care of itself.

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