The Clinton Presidency

November 08, 1992|By MICHAEL NELSON

President-elect Bill Clinton would like nothing better than t be a president of achievement in the mold of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan. But he probably is fated (at least dur- ing his first term) to be a president of preparation like Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy or Jimmy Carter.

What marks a presidency of achievement? According to the theory developed by Vanderbilt University political scientist Erwin C. Hargrove and me in our 1984 book, "Presidents, Politics, and Policy," such a presidency is characterized by a great burst of presidentially inspired legislation that significantly alters the role of federal government in American society.

Mr. Wilson was the 20th century's first president of achievement. From 1913 to 1917 his New Freedom program inaugurated a role for the federal government as an umpire that would regulate the excess of private corporate power.

The public philosophy of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s was that, within the bounds of capitalism and private property, the federal government is ultimately responsible for securing the foundations Michael Nelson is professor of political science at Rhodes College in Memphis. The author of several books on the presidency, he is currently compiling "The Elections of 1992." of the people's liberty: employment, security and welfare.

Mr. Johnson, the century's third president of achievement, both extended the helping hand of government to economically deprived minorities and ad- dressed quality-of-life concerns such education and environment in pursuit of his Great Society agenda. Most of Mr. Johnson's landmark programs were enacted by Congress in 1964 and 1965.

During the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan demonstrated that conservative Republicans as well as Democrats can be presidents of achievement by persuading Congress to enact dramatic income tax cuts, social spending reductions and defense spending increases.

Why is Mr. Clinton unlikely to join these ranks within the next four years? Simply put, a president of achievement occurs only with the confluence of three political conditions, and that confluence has not yet occurred for Mr. Clinton. The conditions are: a politically skillful president, a supply of policy ideas suitable for the president's purposes and an empowering election.

Political skill? Probably

In terms of leadership skill, a president of achievement requires above all a strategic sense of the grain of history -- an ability to understand the public mood and to shape and fulfill the historic possibilities of the time. Such presidents also must be able to present themselves and their policies to the general public through rhetoric and symbolic language and to deal in a tactically skillful way with other Washington politicians through negotiation, persuasion and other kinds of political gamesmanship. Finally, the president of achievement needs to be able to mobilize administration lieutenants effectively to formulate and sell specific policy proposals.

Both as governor of Arkansas and as a presidential candidate, Mr. Clinton has for the most part scored high on all counts. After a first-term false start, which culminated in his defeat for re-election in the 1980 gubernatorial campaign, he has listened carefully, spoken persuasively and dealt adroitly with a wide range of voters, legislators and advisers.

Mr. Clinton's only apparent weakness is an overwhelming desire to please everyone, a tendency that he traces to the experience of growing up in a troubled home. His conciliatory approach to opponents in Arkansas has sometimes proven to be the basis for legislative success, but at other times has led him to sidestep difficult issues or to make unnecessary concessions that have diluted the effectiveness of his policy proposals.

Policy ideas? Perhaps

Although broad campaign rhetoric is often enough to get a candidate elected, slogans and generalities must be translated into specific ideas for legislation once a president takes office.

Successful policy ideas are characterized not just by their grounding in expert knowledge, but also by their fit with an always-changing mix of deeply rooted cultural values and the public expectations of the day. Such a rigorous standard means that useful policy ideas may not always be available to a newly-elected president.

Mr. Clinton has never lacked for ideas about what the government should do differently and better. For many years, he and Vice President-elect Albert Gore have been two of the country's most serious students of public policy.

Mr. Clinton also has articulated a theme for his domestic agenda, rTC which he frequently described during the campaign as neither "trickle-down economics" (the standard Republican approach) nor "tax-and-spend government" (the traditional Democratic solution), but rather as "invest and grow."

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