Shrewd Clinton shines brightly at conference ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

December 16, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- It is no trick for a president-elect to command the national agenda. Everyone wants to know what the new guy is going to do when he takes office.

But Bill Clinton's decision to hold a conference on the economy is still a remarkably shrewd piece of politics that can pay dividends well into his first year in the White House.

At the most obvious level, the spectacle of the incoming president sitting around a table with representatives of so many diverse interests is a sharp contrast with President Bush, whose Achilles' heel in the campaign proved to be the perception that he simply wasn't personally involved or even very interested in domestic affairs. So the first message of the conference is that the change Clinton promised during the campaign means, among other things, an activist, hands-on chief executive who is a bit of a policy wonk.

The Little Rock, Ark., conference also has the obvious value of sending a particular message to people in the business community, only a minority of whom are Democrats, that the new man is interested in eliciting their views. The conference may be, as its critics contend, the ultimate media event, but it is clearly more than that to the participants.

The most significant political benefit Clinton can derive from the conference, however, is the picture it conveys of a president less distant from the citizens he represents.

If there was one thing that became perfectly clear during the presidential election campaign, it was that too many Americans felt isolated and powerless to affect the course of their government and the way it affected their own lives. Indeed, it was that feeling that was most responsible for the support engendered by Ross Perot. What Clinton is saying with his conference is that although he and he alone must make the decisions, he is going to solicit enough advice across the spectrum so that he will do so as a president fully aware of public opinion. In the end, this could pay a political dividend by making it possible for him to enlist broader support for his policies from some of those who will feel they played a part in formulating them.

Dealing with Congress can be difficult in the best of times. And senators and congressmen often complain that the White House is out of touch with their constituents, those "real people" back home. In many cases, the congressional insight into popular thought may be nothing more than what they hear at a Rotary Club luncheon during the Easter recess, but the argument sounds valid nonetheless. Presidents do become remarkably insulated.

But that complaint will carry less weight in cases in which the president has made such a conspicuous effort to enlist outside views on national problems. At the very least, senators and House members will have to deal with the fact some of their own constituents have been given a hearing by the White House.

There is no way to know how often and on what occasions the new president may be able to use this technique after he takes office next month. Many issues are too complex and arcane for such conferences to be valuable as more than a political gesture. That may be the case, for example, in approaching the failures of the health care system.

And in many cases there is already a consensus on the possible solutions to a problem and the real issue is who has the political will to take the actions.

Everyone in and out of government knows that reducing the federal deficit eventually will require some attack on the entitlement programs, but knowing that and doing it without committing political suicide can be two entirely different things.

At the moment, however, Bill Clinton has found a way to tell his constituents that, first, he wasn't kidding about the priority he would give to dealing with the fundamental problems in the economy and, second, that he will be a different kind of president than they have known in the last 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

The problems of the economy are too deep-seated and vexing to be resolved in two days in Little Rock. But you have to make a start somewhere, and showing political leadership is not a bad place to begin. If President Bush had done the same thing, he might not be heading home to Houston next month.

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