Administration's Sense of Weariness, Shrinking Agenda


President Clinton has generally managed to maintain his approval rating and legislative momentum in the face of distracting investigations and scandals, but they are finally beginning to show their effect. For obvious reasons, the president has been inhibited from stepping into the sex-in-the-military controversy and using his bully pulpit to lead the country to a more adult view of adultery.

But all through the buffeted White House runs what David Broder in The Washington Post calls "a sense of weariness," with a legislative program he calls "the incredible shrinking agenda."

Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution in Washington says the public-policy debate is not dominated by the president, who has been obliged to limit himself to what he can effectively do.

Thus, in part because of the China campaign fund controversy, the administration has run into trouble trying to negotiate China's entry into the World Trade Organization. And the renewal of trade preferences for China seems to be headed toward a corrosive debate in Congress.

Out of fear of defeat in Congress, the administration has postponed its effort to get so-called "fast track" legislation leading to new trade accords, including the promised inclusion of Chile in the hemispheric free-trade agreement.

Former Undersecretary of Commerce Jeff Garten, who served in the Clinton administration, says, "The campaign scandals have made the whole administration cower about China, and in Congress the political foundation for a broad trade policy has crumbled."

This is a bitter pill for a president who has made trade expansion and engagement with China two keystones of his foreign policy.

IN the domestic domain, the effects of scandals and controversies on accomplishment in the remaining thousand days of this administration are yet to be seen. Clinton has, almost with exhilaration, vetoed a disaster-relief bill loaded with ungermane provisions unacceptable to him. He shows enthusiasm for initiatives not involving much money, such as a campaign for better race relations.

But there is about the White House a sense of flagging zeal. It would indeed be surprising if a president contending with a sea of personal troubles, including two issues that have reached the Supreme Court, could retain full energy - and full authority - to deal with national issues.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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