Clinton's Drip, Drip, Drip Presidency

President avoids big congressional battles - and redefines how Oval Office sets policy.

As he nears the end of his fifth year in office, President Clinton continues to be involved in an extraordinary array of small yet activist executive projects.

One day he's moderating a town hall discussion of race. The next he's speaking at a conference on the Internet and obscenity. Then he's huddled with advisers, studying ways the White House might help ease access to child care.

It's a style rooted in political constraint - passage of sweeping bills is problematic when the other party controls Congress, after all. But Mr. Clinton may have refined it to the point where it will affect the way future presidents look at the office.

That's because he has been able to meet a substantial number of his goals in such big areas as education and health care by taking tiny policy steps. The magisterial "Imperial Presidency" was the reigning model for chief executives through much of the cold war. Clinton may have replaced that with the idea of president as "Chief Assistant Secretary of Stuff."

"It's pulling presidential power right into the country's homes and police stations and so forth," says Charles O. Jones, a University of Wisconsin political scientist. "A lot of it is quite trivial. But the way he builds off of it is often not so trivial."

Questions of style - and legacy - appear to have been much on the president's mind as of late. In interviews, he has been insisting that many of the administration actions derided by others as "little" have in fact had big consequences.

Speeches he's given to the party faithful during the year's late-fall early-winter fund-raising blitz indicate that he doesn't think he gets the credit he's due.

"Most of what we do today will become clear in its impact only when I'm long out of the White House," he said to an audience in Kansas last month.

To see what the president is talking about, consider health care - a subject that was perhaps his major priority when he assumed office. Clinton's initial huge health-care-reform package went down to ignominious defeat, amid widespread congressional and public resistance. But since then he's pushed small initiatives on the subject when he could, largely by co-opting measures that seemed already popular - or at least not too unpopular - with lawmakers.

Thus the Clinton years have seen an expansion in health-care coverage for children and greater health protection for adults who switch jobs. Health plans must now cover 48 hours of hospitalization for newborns and their mothers.

Next up: The White House has jumped on the bandwagon of medical "bills of rights," which would define what consumers can expect from their health plans. It's pushing for legislation that would guarantee an overnight hospital stay for mastectomy patients.

The area of education has seen similar, though less concerted, administration activism. And then there are the home and community issues - school uniforms, TV ratings, reading tutor programs - that Clinton pushes solely from his presidential bully pulpit. The ratings are now a common, if confusing, feature on the screen. The White House says that uniforms are now popular in many big-city schools and that some 800 colleges have pledged to help find reading tutors.

"What the president has done is take the social issues in this country and redefine them," says Mark Penn, one of Clinton's pollsters.

National issues have been "Balkanized" in recent years, says Mr. Penn. Many things are considered pressing by 6 or 7 seven percent of the population, but few things are judged important by the whole country.

That means leaders of both parties will be increasingly drawn into Clinton's style of politics, says the White House pollster.

OTHERS take a dimmer view of the president's mode of action. Some liberal Democrats, for instance, would like more activism from their chief executive than a push for blazers and neckties in schools, or establishment of a 311 number for nonemergency law-enforcement phone calls. They'd prefer a return to the days of big health-care packages, win or lose.

The man who would lead this wing of the party, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, complained earlier this month about "small ideas that nibble around the edges of our big problems."

Others find some of the things that Clinton does somewhat unseemly. At times it appears the president will dredge up just about any old idea from the depths of the bureaucracy and host a three-day conference about it, say critics.

George Bush had a completely different view of the duties of the nation's chief executive, says his ex-press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater. He thought a president should be involved in sweeping mega-issues, such as building a world coalition against Iraq.

"Clinton does these assistant secretary-like things," says Mr. Fitzwater. "They work for him, but Bush would never have gotten involved in something like whether air bags should be slowed down."

And other critics point out that the president has missed opportunities on big issues while focusing on small ones. If White House efforts on winning "fast track" trade negotiating authority had begun earlier, Congress might have stiffed him on the subject this fall. Global warming is a similar area. It's big, and the administration says it's important, but even supporters admit little effort has yet been made to sell the White House position to Congress or the public at large.

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