Return of the Comeback Kid

February 07, 1993

After a ferocious first fortnight, President Clinton has recaptured control of the national agenda and is trying, with mixed success, to bend it to his will. Zoe Baird is forgotten and gays-in-the-military is an issue put off until a later day. The politician who won the White House running as a suburban populist is back, focusing attention on such economic issues as welfare reform, deficit reduction and family emergency leave.

Even outside forces conspired to make this past week a good one for the president. Stock market blue chips rose 132 points to a new high. Statistics showed real momentum in the recovery as leading indicators turned positive, productivity rose, factory orders strengthened and the jobless rate fell. Abroad, Germany and Japan finally nudged interest rates lower, a boost for the world outlook.

On the diplomatic front, developments were more edgy. Secretary of State Warren Christopher balked at the Vance-Owen plan for Bosnia, not least because Muslim forces had been encouraged by Clinton campaign talk to hold out for a better deal. U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor warned the European Community he would stop federal purchases of EC-made power generation and telecommunications products unless the community eased its new government-procurement rules. The administration's quest for a way out of the current Israel-Arab standoff put the U.S. on the spot in the United Nations and sent Mr. Christopher on an ill-defined mission to the Middle East.

Yet back in Washington Mr. Clinton was doing what he does best: cozying up to old buddies in the National Governors Association by promising they will have more leeway and less red tape in dealing with the federal Medicaid bureaucracy; schmoozing on Capitol Hill no less than four times in one week to smooth the way for controversial proposals sure to be included in his mid-February economic package; holding his first Rose Garden signing ceremony as the family leave bill moved quickly to passage despite Senate Republican efforts to embarrass the Democrats by forcing them to vote, as they did not wish to do, on the gays-in-the-military question.

By most standards, this was a good performance. Certainly better than the Zoe Baird imbroglio, the kind of appointee embarrassment that can befall any new administration. Immeasurably better than the Clinton circle's disastrous handling of the gays dispute, an issue of importance to the intellectual liberal elite identified with Hillary Rodham Clinton but of negative appeal to the middle class constituency that gave Mr. Clinton his victory.

Congress will be gone for its annual February break this week, but it will be back for the president's state of the union address on Feb. 17. This will give the president a clear shot to put forth precisely the message he wants to dominate his early months in the White House. If he has learned from his Round One blunders and his Round Two comeback, Mr. Clinton should be positioned to do well in the struggles that lie ahead.

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