Clinton's economic talk bears political urgency ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

February 10, 1993|By JACK GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Thanks to circumstances partly but not entirely beyond his control, President Clinton has raised the stakes on his economic program enormously.

At the minimum, the president now needs to use his nationally televised speech next week to get back "on message" -- meaning to make it clear that he has an economic program worthy of the name. That, after all, is the reason he was chosen over George Bush in the first place.

At the optimum, he can hope to change the subject to the inevitable controversies over his proposals and away from the incessant nattering about how badly the White House has stumbled in trying to find an attorney general. Indeed, Clinton has had such a rocky start it is probably fair to guess he would welcome arguing over what level and what kind of sacrifices he will demand from his constituents in the name of long-term economic reform.

Before the Kimba Wood fiasco, the new president seemed well on the road to recovery from the Zoe Baird episode. He was filling the air with trial balloons on proposals that might be included in his economic program and talking about issues, including welfare reform and campaign finance reform, that are among those of special interest to the swing voters in the 1992 election.

There was a consensus of expectation that he would produce a different nominee for attorney general who could be quickly and quietly confirmed. Even the Republicans in the Senate were making conciliatory noises about getting that business behind them. Instead, because of the clumsy handling of Kimba Wood, Clinton finds himself struggling once again to control the agenda.

He is taking some steps in that direction, at least. He has been trying, for example, to set the stage for a tough message on the economy by setting what is designed to look like a good example with his announced plans for cutting the White House staff. Although the plan will save only $10 million, it is the kind of thing that reaches those voters -- a clear majority, the opinion polls tell us -- who believe the government is both too big and too haughty. Taking away limousines is always good populist politics.

The danger for Clinton growing out of the Kimba Wood affair is obviously that it will reinforce a picture of the new administration out of its depth -- "White House in disarray" is one of the staples of Washington journalism -- and invite further comparisons with the last Southern governor to move into the White House, Jimmy Carter.

What is most puzzling to those who have followed the careers of both Carter and Clinton is that there really is little basis for those analogies except at the most superficial level. Carter's problem after he entered the White House was his unwillingness to feed political factors into his decisions. By contrast, Clinton is not only willing to meet his political responsibilities but also eager to do so. It can be argued that the whole problem he has had with Zoe Baird and then Kimba Wood grew out of his insistence on playing some de facto quota game in choosing his Cabinet, the oldest of the old politics.

But the fact that comparisons with Carter may not be legitimate doesn't mean they are not being made within the political community and in the press. And there are some striking parallels.

After his initial and damaging skirmishes with Congress, Carter had the opportunity to reclaim control of the agenda with his speech on the prime topic of that moment -- the energy crisis. But he was never forceful or vivid enough to convince the electorate that the problem was as serious as he claimed or the solutions he proposed necessarily the answers.

In this respect Clinton enjoys an enormous advantage when he outlines his economic program next week. He has succeeded a Republican president drummed out of office because of the conviction that he had no interest or expertise in domestic affairs.

And Clinton was elected largely because, despite continuing distractions, he convinced the voters he was a man with a realistic and well-considered plan.

Now, however, the new president is running out of time to prove he wasn't a mistake after all. That is why the stakes are so high when Clinton makes that speech next Wednesday.

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