Clinton's Journey: A Social Engineer Turns Electioneer

In the life of Bill Clinton's presidency, this has been an extraordinary week.

He signed into law a popular bill that makes health insurance portable between jobs. He approved the first increase in the minimum wage in five years. And, in the most controversial move of his term, President Clinton signed yesterday a welfare-reform bill that ends federal aid to the poor as an entitlement - and in effect ends President Roosevelt's New Deal as we knew it.

But within this flurry of penmanship, performed not coincidentally on the eve of the Democratic Party's convention in Chicago, lies clues to a nearly four-year odyssey that has left Mr. Clinton in good position to be reelected.

The end result is what counts in the eyes of voters, and justifiably or not, Clinton claims a strong record: a budget deficit cut in half, low unemployment and inflation, a decline in the welfare caseload, and less violent crime.

But it is Clinton's odyssey - his seat-of-the-pants victories, his utter defeats, and his ability to adapt to political realities - that have made his term noteworthy.

"The main story is his fairly dramatic change in course after the '94 election," says Paul Quirk, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Coming into office, Clinton was a young, idealistic reformer out to tame the budget deficit, revamp the nation's health-care system, and change welfare. But he entered the White House with a minimal mandate - just 43 percent of the vote and diminished majorities in a Congress that was, on balance, more liberal than he.

Enacting his first budget, which called for reducing America's budget deficit via spending cuts and tax increases, required Clinton to use up so much political capital that he had little left for health-care reform.

The failure of that reform effort had many causes: its secretive formulation, its authorship by two people more liberal than he (his controversial wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Ira Magaziner), and the final product, which was criticized as big and complicated.

The failure of health-care reform left no time or game plan to handle welfare reform. A few months later, the public rejected Clinton and the Democratic control of Congress in the watershed election of November 1994.

But if Clinton's first two years were all about reform, his second two years have been focused on winning reelection - and completing the job of, one by one, taking most of the Republicans' issues away from them.

The Republican majority in Congress, possessing a self-described revolutionary zeal, proved to be the perfect foil for Clinton, a sometime liberal, sometime conservative who aims to position himself as a centrist.

As he begins his full-bore effort to convince the public he deserves a second term, social issues will play a prominent role in his pitch. How does the Clinton record really look? And how will history treat it?

*Welfare. Yesterday's signing of reform legislation may well turn out to be the most significant act of Clinton's presidency, say presidential analysts.

On paper, it does end welfare as we know it, terminating the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program, handing money to states in lump sums, and letting them craft their own programs, within certain parameters.

But if the fears of some begin to materialize - such as a dramatic increase in the number of children in poverty - followup legislation may soften some of the edges of reform.

During Clinton's term, welfare was already undergoing changes. His administration allowed 37 states to conduct experiments in welfare policy and heavily encouraged welfare-to-work programs.

Some argue that even talk of welfare reform has jolted many recipients to try to put their lives in order and get off the dole. The bottom line, Clinton aides emphasize, is that during his term, the welfare caseload has already declined by 1.2 million people. Whether Clinton can take credit for that is debatable, but it won't stop him from trying.

*Health care. The failure of major reform has been mitigated somewhat by the signing this week of health-insurance portability legislation.

In large part, the administration highlights what it sees as its success in averting bad outcomes, such as the Republican plan to turn Medicaid (health care for the poor) over to the states as block grants and to make cuts in the projected increase of Medicare spending.

*Crime. Clinton deputies speak often of the president's enactment of a plan to put 100,000 new police officers on the street. But, to date, only a fraction of those officers are actually hired and in place.

Still, crime rates have declined in some parts of the country, a fact that has become part of the administration's sound bite for why it deserves four more years in the White House.

*Helping families. Now pitching this as the centerpiece of Clinton's reelection campaign, aides rattle off a string of initiatives.

At the top is the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a family member. Clinton inherited this from the previous Congress, signed it soon after taking office, and is happy to claim this popular measure as his own.

In addition, an increase under Clinton in the Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax rebate for the working poor, has provided tax relief for 15 million people, the administration says.

In recent months, Clinton has maximized the "bully pulpit" aspect of his presidency by supporting various measures that he says will help parents do their jobs: a TV ratings system, "V-chips" that screen out violent television programming, school uniforms, and an antitobacco campaign aimed at children.

*Gun control. The enactment of the Brady bill, which controls the purchase of handguns, may be most significant for its political value.

"It doesn't really change all that much, but it is symbolically important: Clinton beat the National Rifle Association," says Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington.

The enactment of a ban on 19 types of assault weapons holds similar value. The ban is popular with the public and allows Clinton to paint Republican leaders, who oppose it on constitutional grounds, as the captives of special interests.

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