Telltale signs of twilight in Clinton's presidency

Lewinsky saga is behind him, but now he's busy defending policies, notinitiating them.

In recent days, President Clinton has confronted some of the last vestiges of the Monica Lewinsky scandal - a pent-up press wanting to have at him.

He faced questions about his legacy of truthfulness and his reflections on impeachment in his first East Room press conference in nearly a year. He was grilled at annual media events, and poked fun at himself - some say deftly.

Yes, the Lewinsky chapter is largely behind him and he has survived. But survived to accomplish what? He's on the defensive about the furtive transfer of technology to China and faces new risks in Kosovo.

The outlook for his two key domestic initiatives - Social Security and Medicare reform - is murky, at best. And other issues, such as the election prospects of Vice President Al Gore in 2000 or Hillary Rodham Clinton in a New York senatorial bid, are stealing some of the spotlight from the president.

"For all intents and purposes, this is a guy left looking at his watch," says John Zogby, an independent pollster. The lame-duck presidency, he says, has set in.

At times, the president himself reflects a more put-up-the-feet demeanor. In Little Rock, Ark., just over a week ago, he spoke of his "imminent retirement."

A TELLTALE sign of the twilight presidency, says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, is that Mr. Clinton is less the initiator and more the defender of policy - especially in the foreign arena. "Events are driving Bill Clinton, rather than Bill Clinton driving events," he says. "This is a change."

The White House, for instance, is being forced to answer uncomfortable questions about espionage leaks from US weapons laboratories to China, endangering the administration's policy of engagement - trying to influence Beijing through economic ties - and the possibility of bringing it into the World Trade Organization.

This must be especially disappointing for Clinton, who, as part of his legacy, has been hoping to improve ties with a more progressive Beijing. And even as Kosovo heats up, the president faces skeptics in Congress about the possibility of airstrikes or perhaps sending in ground troops.

While he mollified some key Republicans Friday with his explanation of US stakes in the region, others remain unsatisfied.

They say the threshold for military confrontation hasn't been reached: The president hasn't thought through the consequences of NATO airstrikes nor established an exit strategy for US peacekeepers, should they ever be sent in. The Senate plans a day-long debate on Kosovo today.

On the domestic front, reforming Social Security and Medicare are long shots, many now believe. About the only area where Republicans agree with the president is setting aside at least 62 percent of future budget surpluses for fixing the retirement system.

On Medicare, many in Washington are puzzled by the president's failure to support the plan of his appointee to a bipartisan commission examining the health-care program, Sen. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana.

The senator, co-chair of the commission, had proposed government subsidies for insurance premiums that could either be used for traditional Medicare or for private health plans. The commission last week failed to approve Mr. Breaux's plan by one vote. Instead, the White House now says it will introduce its own Medicare reform plan, which will include coverage for prescription drugs.

But now, centrist Democrats who backed Breaux feel abandoned. Liberal Democrats fear the president will cut a deal with the GOP. Republicans wonder if Clinton really wants gridlock so Democrats can use Medicare as a 2000 campaign issue.

"He would not have said that he was going to submit a proposal if he wasn't serious about dealing with Medicare," Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said on "Face the Nation" Sunday.

Given the distrust over the Lewinsky affair, as well as the pending elections, the president may not have much leverage left for pushing major entitlement reforms through Congress.

"I don't see him getting much done," says historian Robert Dallek, noting that circumstances beyond Clinton's control may do the most to shape his final two years. He points to the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., at the end of the Johnson administration, as the real catalyst for civil rights reform.

Meanwhile, other political figures are grabbing more attention, including the president's wife and Mr. Gore. But here, analysts expect Clinton to play a greater role, trumpeting the vice president's virtues and frenetically raising money for the Democratic Party. "He clearly sees Gore's election as a vindication," says Mr. Dallek.

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