Jimmy Clinton?

January 31, 1993

The headline above is unfair to the president. The question, though, is which president.

Jimmy Carter got off on the wrong foot with Congress by sending a proposal to Capitol Hill soon after his inauguration that would have knocked out water projects dear to Western lawmakers. When he looked back on the resulting furor and its lasting ill-effects, Mr. Carter wrote: "I learned the hard way that there was no party loyalty or discipline."

Bill Clinton, surrounded by people who vow they won't repeat Carteresque mistakes, now finds himself spending political capital at the Capitol that he should be hoarding for the big stuff -- deficit reduction and the health care and Social Security revisions required to make it possible.

By terrorizing Senate Democrats with the thought (now vanished) they might have to vote for Zoe Baird as attorney general, by raising the issue of gays in the military as congressional phones rang off the wall, by targeting Social Security benefits (a no-no on the Hill), by discarding middle-class tax cuts in favor of middle-class tax increases and by failing to consult with Senate chairmen on key appointments, the new president has squandered some political assets he brought to Washington.

Speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat who disparages Jimmy Carter's handling of Congress as much as he grudgingly admires Ronald Reagan's mastery of procedure and timing, insists that President Clinton is doing just fine except that he sets too many deadlines on himself. But when asked last week if Mr. Clinton needs a Jim Baker, the speaker rejected the assumption behind the question.

Not all of Washington does. James A. Baker III, as White House chief of staff during the first Reagan term, was able to keep Mr. Reagan from making the kinds of mistakes -- i.e., Iran-contra -- that undercut his second term. Mistake-avoidance is the foremost job of any White House staff. While recent history is littered with failures, that should not eliminate the hope that somehow the Clinton administration might be different. The new president needs someone at his elbow with the finely honed political antennae and knowledge of Washington's ways to keep him out of trouble.

Though Mr. Clinton's negative poll ratings are high, so are his approval ratings. Basically, the nation is behind him; it wants him to succeed. Substantively, many of his positions are correct, such as protection of the constitutional rights of gays and the need to restore the government's revenue base. But the presidency is not a course in civics; it is an obstacle course that requires the ultimate in political adroitness.

Like Jimmy Carter before him, Bill Clinton has won a presidential campaign -- no small achievement. Now he has to prove he is one Southern governor who can win over Washington. A fortnight does not an administration make. But a president's clout is rarely higher than at the outset of his term. History is beginning to record that so far Mr. Clinton's performance is less than the best.


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