Clinton as a Pacesetter of Presidents

His penchant for 'event hopping' sets a new pattern for communicating with 'the people.' But does he need to slow down?

Compare and contrast:

In the first two weeks of June, President Clinton traveled to nine major US cities plus a few towns in between. He walked the leafy woods of Walden Pond in Massachusetts to dedicate a center to Thoreau, encouraged student volunteers in Cleveland, and stood on the California coast to fend off oil drillers for another 10 years. Add to that a handful of out-of-town fund-raisers.

America's last two-term president, by comparison, spent the first two weeks of June 1986 closer to home. President Reagan made one trip to South Carolina to address Marine Corps basic-training graduates, stopping in North Carolina for a fund-raiser for a Republican congressman. That was the extent of his foray outside Washington, except for three weekends in a row he passed at restful Camp David.

This snapshot illustrates a bigger picture. The peripatetic Mr. Clinton is a president who far out-travels and out-glad-hands his predecessors. And while he's one of a kind, his style of taking his message to the people is setting a pattern for future presidents, political analysts say.

"He's campaigning as a way of governing," says Charles Jones, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution here. This, he says, "is the wave of the future."

The result is that public-policy debates are now much more public, explains Mr. Jones. The president's hectic schedule helps him get his ideas out to Americans, but so does the communications explosion. The Internet, videoconferencing, and cable TV are especially potent tools.

This trend touches other politicians as well. Compare Speaker Newt Gingrich with his predecessor as head of the House Republicans, Bob Michael, or Senate majority leader Trent Lott with former majority leader Bob Dole. These politicians, Jones maintains, are out and about more, are on more TV shows (thank cable for that), and are evolving into more "outsider" than "insider," he says.

Can't turn back the clock

The irrevocability of the information revolution and the pattern set by Clinton's style make it hard to conceive of a reversal of this outward communication trend. "No president in the future can pull all that back in the White House," says Jones.

Of course, other factors help explain the difference in style between Clinton and his predecessors. He's younger than Mr. Reagan and perhaps in better health. But even George Bush, an energetic president who handled a war and the collapse of communism, clocked only one trip and six fund-raisers in the same June period during his presidency. On his four trips in the first half of June, Clinton attended no fewer than nine Democratic political events, most of them fund-raisers.

Clinton is also more dogged by scandal than his predecessors were, and this serves as an incentive to keep him as far away from the heat of Washington as possible.

While Clinton's pace and his contact with Americans are likely to influence future presidents, the intensity of his style will be hard to match.

Nonstop agenda

The president "is a nonstop individual who thrives on staying busy. It's part and parcel of his nature," says Leon Panetta, former chief of staff for Clinton. Mr. Panetta says his former boss "has pretty much continued as if a campaign is still going on.... He enjoys very much going out and doing events and touching the people. He draws energy from these events."

This isn't necessarily a good thing, either for Clinton, for future presidents, or for Americans, Panetta warns.

He says there's a "frenetic quality" to Clinton's pace and, with it, "you lose the ability of the country to focus on what's really important."

While Clinton's example "does put some pressure on future presidents to not slow down, future presidents definitely need to take some time to sit back, catch their breath, and take time to reestablish their compass."

And so does Clinton, he adds.

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