Clinton Confronts Weight of History


As President Clinton becomes the first Democrat to serve two terms in the Oval Office in more than 50 years, nary a shred of anticipation can be felt across the land.

Last November, enough Americans thought Mr. Clinton did a good enough job as chief executive to send him back for four more years. But widespread enthusiasm may be too much to ask for when Clinton takes his second oath of office next Monday.

Put aside, for a moment, all of the president's legal troubles - the Paula Jones sexual-harassment suit at issue today in the Supreme Court, the Democratic Party fund-raising flap, and Whitewater.

Even without them, Clinton faces an uphill battle to establish a legacy that would place him among the ranks of presidential greats and near-greats. Throughout US history, second terms almost inevitably are a disappointment. Even President Franklin Roosevelt, one of America's legendary leaders, served a second term that was found wanting.

"No. 1, a lot of the best ideas were already out," says American University historian Allan Lichtman, referring to the New Deal. "No. 2, like other second-term presidents, he pushed too far. He got too arrogant, with the court-packing scheme and the scheme to purge conservatives from his own party."

President Reagan, whose conservative revolution bears his name, couldn't match the excitement of his first four years during the second four, at least in domestic policy. (In foreign policy, though, he is credited with presiding over the beginning of the end of the cold war.)

Clinton also faces the challenge of divided government, with Republicans controlling Congress. It's true that Mr. Reagan accomplished much with a Democratic Congress during his first two years in office, but he found ideological soulmates among Democrats. The reverse will likely prove more difficult for Clinton.

Of course, nothing paves the way for presidential greatness like a national crisis. Abraham Lincoln faced a civil war. Franklin Roosevelt faced an economic depression and a world war. Clinton, it can be said, is cursed with good times.

"Clinton is a very, very able politician but not necessarily an able leader," says Bert Rockman, a presidential scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. "He's a minimum-risk president."

Still, like all presidents, Clinton has made clear that he cares about his place in history, and so the next few weeks will offer the best glimpse yet of how he plans to secure that place, first with his inaugural, then his State of the Union address to Congress on Feb. 4, and finally, the unveiling of his budget proposal on Feb. 6.

Experts on the presidency say Clinton's best shot at greatness could come either in the foreign policy arena - with a Middle East settlement, for example - or, in domestic affairs, with a lasting solution to the projected insolvency of the middle-class entitlement programs, Medicare and Social Security.

But, especially with the entitlements, no solution will be possible without an agreement with congressional Republicans, and so any victory will be shared. Moreover, given how hard Clinton hammered the Republicans over Medicare during the presidential campaign, the GOP is loath to cut him much slack on the issue.

In these days before the White House budget is formally presented to Congress, behind-the-scenes maneuvering on a Medicare proposal is in high gear. As part of an overall package designed to slow the rising cost of Medicare, Clinton is reportedly considering big cuts in premiums paid to health maintenance organizations. He also wants to slow the growth in payments to doctors and hospitals who participate in Medicare's traditional fee-for-service program.

Another Clinton proposal, to shift the cost of home health care out of the Medicare trust fund, has been derided by Republicans as a shell game. But for now, most GOP leaders are speaking positively about the legislative session ahead, looking forward to agreement on a balanced budget in five years - and no government shutdowns.

For Clinton, the next two years may hold more opportunities for working with Congress than the following two years. History has shown that mid-term congressional elections favor the party that does not control the White House.

But with little discretionary money to work with, Clinton is left with his own version of "a thousand points of light." Almost daily, he mounts the bully pulpit of the presidency and highlights one or another social issue. One day, he's meeting with business leaders, calling on Americans to hire people off the welfare rolls. The next he's calling for a crackdown on youth gangs. But important as these issues are, say scholars, they are not the stuff of presidential greatness.

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