President on the Line

THE Senate battle on the crime bill is a propitious moment for President Clinton. He is at the middle of his term, and his stature is at risk. For Mr. Clinton to lose on crime could put his presidency at its weakest point and jeopardize the legislation he most needs to pass - health-care reform.

August's dog days haven't been so good to the White House. Clinton's approval rating is down. Columnists who used to adore him now question his style and sincerity. Republicans sense vulnerability.

The president now argues that part of the reason for his slump is the uncertainty of the times. At the end of historical periods such as the two world wars, and now the cold war, ``the mood of the people [is] skeptical, fearful, divisive, vulnerable to hatred,'' he told fellow Democrats. And at a recent fundraiser: ``We're moving to a new era. It has not been defined. Every time this happens, the American people become vulnerable.''

Clinton may be correct when he says the press does not give him enough credit for his agenda and achievements, at least on the domestic front. His domestic agenda is on target: health care, crime, welfare reform, entitlement reform. These are the issues. The president is, however fitfully, fighting for them. His earned-income tax-credit bill is important.

Moreover, though critics ridicule Clinton's complaint about the Zeitgeist as a case of self-pity, it is true we are in a period widely perceived as harder-edged and more anxious. Around the world, budgets are tight, and ethnic tensions run high. Many have no solid feeling about the future.

White House staffers worry that Clinton's complaint about the times will be compared to President Carter's controversial ``malaise'' speech. Actually, to the extent that any president is perceptive about the social forces at work - be they malaise or cynicism - they should get credit for identifying them. That is what leaders do. Yet having defined the times, a leader must settle on a path and go forward with a standard. It is not enough for a leader to say: We can't move because of history. Leaders make history by confronting it and redefining the times by actions taken.

Mr. Carter let himself appear paralyzed in the White House as he tried to secure the release of the American hostages in Iran. President Reagan smothered Carter's malaise with affirmative flag-waving patriotism and a program of military buildup and domestic-spending cutbacks - which led to unprecedented deficits and culminated in the savings-and-loan debacle.

Clinton knows the times are complex; he wants to address a diverse nation. He does not want single-message answers. Still, he needs to work with Congress rather than going to the media. In foreign policy, he must show, in a post-communist era, what the world's leading democracy stands for. ``The economy, stupid'' doesn't satisfy history's deeper demands. Bosnia is a test; so is proliferation from the former East bloc. A win on crime could be a comeback, and turnaround.

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