Should Hillary Be On Or Off Welfare Role?

Everyone has advice for the first lady in second term

Pssst, Hillary. If you're feeling worn down by the latest brouhaha over whether you should have a "formal role" in welfare reform, take heart.

You don't have to sit at home with a paper bag over your head or ignore the issues you care about, prominent observers agree. There is an appropriate role for the modern-day first lady that goes beyond the traditional helpmate function, say these observers. The key is not to act defensive.

"You just go right in the face of your critics and you do what you think is right," says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, an acquaintance of Mrs. Clinton's. "At least you know then that the criticism is coming at you because of your views, which is a lot better than people sitting around imagining what you should do and not really quite doing anything."

James Rosebush, who was former first lady Nancy Reagan's chief of staff, encourages Mrs. Clinton to find her "comfort zone," a modus operandi in which she can be both a leader and popular.

"But to enjoy broader support," Mr. Rosebush adds, "she's got to lose that edge."

As Hillary Rodham Clinton prepares for four more years in the White House - and the national spotlight - these are not the easiest of times. The possibility of an indictment over her Whitewater financial dealings lurks ominously. And the bitter memories of her failed attempt to spearhead health-care reform during her husband's first term have put her critics on guard against anything similar happening again.

She also heads into the second term as one of the few liberals remaining in the White House, making her voice all the more important to groups concerned that welfare reform will hurt children. She has echoed her husband's desire to "fix" the reform, which he signed despite reservations, but she has had to avoid getting out in front of him in any public pronouncements - even as her friends in the children's rights movement have blasted her husband.

"She's in a very difficult position," says David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union. The attempt at health-care reform made her into a lightning-rod for criticism, and if she gets involved in anything again with an ideological dimension, eyebrows will raise, he notes.

Thus the tempest caused by her remark that she may take a "formal role" in welfare reform as it is implemented. In fact, the full text of her comment shows that she envisioned a role similar to her involvement in the government's study of Gulf war disease - "go out, listen to the people, maybe write [the president] some memoranda," she told Time magazine.

It could be an Eleanor Roosevelt-esque role, one in which she serves as the president's "eyes and ears" around the country. "She's in a position where she really can be honest about what's working or not working, and will just be able to see and feel and observe things that it's not as easy for a president with a huge entourage to be able to do," says Ms. Goodwin, the historian.

Undergirding the perpetual debate about Mrs. Clinton's role in her husband's administration lies a fundamental uncertainty about the role of the first lady in general. She is, by virtue of her unique proximity to the president, one of the most powerful people in the world. But there's no job description. While first ladies have always influenced their husbands, they have largely kept their views quiet.

In many ways Mrs. Clinton has followed in the footsteps of Mrs. Roosevelt, though in a different cultural context. Mrs. Roosevelt was so far ahead of her time as to be unthreatening. Mrs. Clinton comes as the product of a movement that has made powerful career women much more commonplace; therefore she heightens expectations, and fears, about what she will do with the position.

"There are some folks whose hackles will be raised by her very existence no matter what she does," says Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. "And there will be some political games to be played by folks who've used her as a rather convenient foil, and who view any role she plays as a way to demean President Clinton in the sense of, 'You know, he can't even control his woman.' "

Conservatives question what impact the first lady can have on how welfare reform is implemented. If she decides to highlight any examples of people being hurt, she could be dismissed as a liberal searching for horror stories. But her supporters say that powerful examples won't be so easy to dismiss.

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