The forum tonight is Clinton's strength

February 10, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON - As a candidate, Bill Clinton shone when he was answering questions in televised town hall meetings.

As he prepares to meet with an audience tonight in Detroit, his image makers are hoping that same forum will serve him equally TC well as president.

Setting the stage for the $30 billion economic stimulus plan he will unveil next week, Mr. Clinton will use the campaign-style event to pitch a difficult message of shared sacrifice and tough choices to the American people.

Whether the public buys that message may determine the success of Mr. Clinton's economic plan and ultimately his presidency.

Mr. Clinton will be taking his case to an economically depressed Michigan, where he will be pictured interacting with everyday people concerned about keeping their jobs.

The high-tech town hall will allow Mr. Clinton to talk directly to the public "about the premise for his economic plan, what he thinks is important [and] where he wants to take the country," said White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers.

In the three weeks since Mr. Clinton took office, the White House has been battling to keep a positive message in front of a public overwhelmed with news about the stumbling effort to choose an attorney general and outcry over the issue of gays in the military.

"They're sending a mixed message," said Michael Deaver, who was President Reagan's media adviser. "I don't think they've got a clear idea of what they want to do."

Clinton aides, openly admiring Mr. Reagan's communication skills, have tried to focus their message by taking a page out of the Republican's book. Clinton Communications Director George Stephanopoulos, Democratic National Chairman David Wilhelm, Clinton political director Rahm Emmanuel and political consultant Paul Begala are among those who meet every morning at the White House to decide on a theme for the day.

Last week, they drew news coverage when they put Mr. Clinton's talent for engaging an audience to use

when he met in an employee cafeteria with workers at the Office of Management and Budget, promising to cut the White House payroll.

In a radio message Saturday, he vowed to reduce government payrolls and perquisites and eliminate "windfalls for the wealthy" before seeking sacrifices from the middle class.

Selling the idea of shared pain to middle-class Americans, whom he promised a tax cut during the campaign, won't be easy, especially when economic indicators and consumer confidence are on the upswing.

But in the town hall setting, "he's the best. He has an amazing ability to explain, educate, communicate and bring people with him," said Frank Greer, who was Mr. Clinton's campaign media adviser.

The Detroit TV station that is host for the event, WXYZ, said it chose the 60 audience members to achieve a diversity of backgrounds, interests and questions. Through satellite hookups, Mr. Clinton also will field questions from audiences in Miami, Atlanta and Seattle.

An hour after Clinton's meeting, Vice President Al Gore will hold a town meeting in Ontario, Calif., another area hard hit by the recession.

Mr. Clinton's media gurus believe that his encounters with ordinary people, such the White House open house during inauguration week and his walk through a Washington neighborhood in November, have been highly successful at creating images that stick in the public's mind: a president who is down to earth and in touch with concerns of workaday people.

There'll be other efforts to avoid the media filter, with the White House and the Democratic National Committee coordinating efforts to shape the president's political message and deliver it via satellite television, mass mailings, faxes and other high-tech communications technology.

On the air

President Clinton's electronic "town meeting" from Detroit is to be broadcast live at 8 o'clock tonight by C-SPAN and Maryland Public Television (Channels 22/67), and on WBAL-AM (1090) radio. ABC's "Nightline" will review the meeting at 11:30 p.m.

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