IT was vintage Robert Reich. In a chandeliered dining room of a Washington hotel, the Labor secretary was telling a group of reporters how the nation's recovery from recession has all but escaped working Americans - those who drive forklifts and deliver flowers. In his best Harvard tutorial tone, he rolled out a satchel-full of numbers and anecdotes showing that real family income has been dropping in the nation since 1979.
Mr. Reich's message that crisp April morning was markedly different from one being generated by the White House just three blocks away. The Clinton administration was kicking off a campaign to publicize its economic success: more than two years of growth producing over 6 million jobs.
As other Cabinet secretaries were hitting the airwaves to woo the electorate with the good news, Reich was sending out a warning for the coming election year: "Never underestimate the political power of a declining paycheck."
It's not that Reich never talks to the White House. In fact, the Labor secretary has stood by Clinton as one of his closest advisers on domestic policy.
It is just that many in the White House have responded to an aggressive Republican Congress with professions of fiscal responsibility and budget-cutting, while dropping plans for big-government programs. But not Reich. Though Reich has had to do his part at budget-cutting - a dramatic revamping of federal job-training programs, for instance - he continues to push new funding proposals for a core Democratic constituency: American workers.
He has largely been out gunned by the GOP and his own party colleagues in the battle for more government help to address what he calls "bread and butter" issues: job training, college loans, and a hike in the minimum wage.
But as Democratic ideals come under fierce assault from GOP lawmakers, some Clinton officials have moved closer to Reich's positions. The more centrist of President Clinton's closest advisers - such as National Economic Council Chairwoman Laura D'Andrea Tyson - were once arrayed against the left-leaning Reich. Increasingly they believe that swift, deep GOP tax- and-spending cuts will help the wealthy at the expense of working Americans.
Even some conservatives believe the former Harvard professor has stood out as a thoughtful advocate. By talking about the growing gap between the nation's rich and poor and warning of social disintegration, "he's articulating what a lot of people believe, but are afraid to articulate," says John Bolton, a Yale Law School contemporary of Reich's, who now runs the National Policy Forum, a Republican think tank.
Reich's unusual position is grounded in his long friendship with Bill Clinton. The two met as Rhodes Scholars in the 1960s, attended Yale Law School together, and were part of a tight group of young professionals who would soon have high profiles in political, academic, and business circles.
Over the years, they tracked each others' successes, attended each others' weddings, and celebrated new births. The group remained engaged, if at a distance, in one another's work.
Teaching politics and economics at Harvard, Reich was turning out books on industrial policy, worker training, and other subjects. Clinton, a politician in Arkansas, was gobbling them up.
In 1986, as secretary of the Rhodes class of 1968, Reich wrote in the group's newsletter: "Rumor has it that Bill will be the Democratic candidate for president in 1988. I just made up that rumor, but by the time you read this, the rumor will have spread to the ends of the nation." Reich was at his friend's side when Clinton announced his candidacy for president in October, 1991.
When asked about it, Reich minimizes the "old boy" connection. He focuses on his ability to report back to Washington policy wonks about his contact with urban and rural America.
BY contrast, most of the administration's economic policymakers go from one high-level meeting to the next, and pore over analyses. Much of their contact with the public is through speeches or radio talk shows. Reich's travels - to manufacturing plants, management meetings, and blue-collar neighborhoods - are what help distinguish him from the typical Cabinet secretary.
Liberal commentators like to credit him with earning a reputation as the "social conscience" of the administration. Virtually alone in championing what he calls the "anxious class" of blue-collar workers, "he is the one who is constantly injecting their claims into an administration that seems to forget them," says Jeff Faux, president of the labor-backed Progressive Policy Institute.
Reich doesn't like most of the characterizations of himself. "I'd like to think I have a social conscience," Reich says, "but it's not charity or being nice to one's neighbor - it's practical. If we make it easier for people to get jobs and improve their living standards, we all gain with more productive citizens. And there may be fewer who are drains on society, like welfare recipients."
His friends say that what Reich believes has much to do with his experience in law school. At the time, Yale was an institution reflecting the great social upheaval of the 1960s in the United States.
"Yale was the vanguard of liberal thought," Mr. Bolton says. Reich's views, he adds, "are not based on electoral calculations."
Since the Republican triumph of November 1994, Clinton's economic team has been on the defensive. While Clinton moves to the political right with his own proposal to balance the budget over 10 years, Reich has seen some of his issues become more important to the Clinton administration's domestic policy debate.
Sitting in his office on a large leather couch, he gestures out a picture window overlooking the Capitol dome. While those Republican lawmakers are trying to trim or eliminate programs designed to raise Americans' living standards, Reich says ominously, "the public has to know what's at stake."
Removing federal support for programs that can save people from slipping through the cracks is short-sighted, he says, "Head Start has to be expanded, not contracted. Low-cost college loans have to be made more available, not restricted. We need more school-to-work programs and job training for workers." Pausing as if to ponder the GOP response to the cost of these initiatives, he adds: "A deal has to be struck."
If the Labor secretary were to open his office window, he would hear a loud GOP repudiation of his insistence that government is an important lifeline for the American worker. During these days of deficit-reduction negotiations, GOP lawmakers plan to block funding for costly government programs Reich holds so precious.
Republicans are also going head to head with Reich in their efforts to remove what they see as obstacles to private sector growth, including a host of worker-related regulations on business.
REICH shifts quickly from specific calls to more philosophic reasoning, a capacity Mr. Faux calls "turning a Democratic laundry list of ideas into a broader context." But detractors on both sides of the political spectrum find Reich too free-wheeling with data, his phrases facile and tired. Reich is the "Slogan Secretary of Labor," says a Democrat who served as a senior Labor official in the Carter administration. "Where's the substance?" she asks.
Reich: "The working people I talk to don't think things are OK. In my travels around the country, I've found a widespread sense of disillusionment bordering on cynicism. Americans I talk to know they're working harder, but still falling behind."
"If American workers had a wage cut during the best economic times," he asks, "what can they expect when things slow down?" Resentment and fear are bound to grow, he warns. "These times are fertile for demagogues who blame immigrants, welfare mothers, ... and the government itself. These feelings are easily translated into popular rage."
Just how much headway has Reich made to reverse this trend? Again, the secretary casts a glance toward the Capitol dome and talks about what he sees as slash-and-burn budget-cutting of the GOP congress. "You can't cut the lifeline for a large segment of the population when the economy is going through such a tumultuous transition."
But "Reich's problems didn't start with the Republicans," says Faux. From the very outset of his tenure, unions and other workers' advocates have been suspicious. Reich was an ivory-tower professor with no name recognition in the labor community.
And while he was "a quick study on workers' issues," Faux contends, those he mastered - such as the impact of trade on low-skilled US labor - often became the toughest challenges. For example, one of the Labor Department's earliest rallying cries was boosting the competitiveness of US workers in the face of increasing pressure from low-cost labor abroad.
Yet its efforts seemed to be quickly undermined when President Clinton alienated organized labor by pushing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Then came Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's high-profile trips - efforts to beef up commercial ties with China and other emerging markets where the labor costs are cheap and human-rights abuses abound. Unions saw the administration as putting their interests behind those of US businesses.
Among many labor groups Reich scored points recently by blasting US corporations for having too many perks at taxpayer expense. Perhaps to his surprise, he enjoys the support of Republicans on this issue, who believe that "corporate welfare" flies in the face of the free market.
While he has countered corporate America on a tough issue, he has found common ground with US business over the need for a better-skilled work force.
But he complains that most training goes to executives or college grads, not the unskilled who most need it.
Harold Raveche, president of Hoboken, New Jersey's Stevens Institute of Technology, the nation's oldest technical school, typifies business and technology leaders who are acutely aware of work force problems, but they cringe at the prospect of government interference.
After Mr. Raveche recently hosted a one-day symposium on work-force training, where guests included the biggest names in the field, he later reported how surprising it was to hear so much talk and evidence about the gap between America's rich and poor.
While Raveche shares the discomfort of many US business leaders with what he calls Reich's "passion for the perceived immobility of the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder," he acknowledges that workers need help.
"Unless we make that group more mobile, it will be a fixed cost for generations to come." Raveche pauses to consider the implications of extending that help: "I take issue with Reich's means of doing it - which is social engineering to redistribute income."
Imposing a training tax on employers, requiring them to pay higher wages, or demanding more money from middle-class taxpayers to fund higher education opportunities is an unfair burden, Raveche says. Promoting more government when the country seems to be shifting in the other direction can't be popular with voters, he says.
But, as observers are quick to point out, political posturing is neither part nor product of Reich's strategy. It all seems to come down to what he believes in.