Clinton stakes fate on bold gamble President bets he can sell plan CLINTON'S ECONOMIC PROGRAM


February 18, 1993|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- Though he grew up in the gambling resort of Hot Springs, Ark., Bill Clinton is not a betting man.

The tax and spending plan he introduced last night, however, represents a calculated risk of enormous proportions. The country's economic future, not to mention Mr. Clinton's political fate, may well be riding on the outcome.

Chances are high that some sort of measure to cut the deficit will emerge from Congress this year. But whether it resembles Mr. Clinton's "new direction" will depend in large measure on the president alone.

Last night, Mr. Clinton demonstrated both the advantages and the pitfalls of that fact, with a speech that showcased the president at his best -- and worst.

He reminded members of Congress how easily he can go over their heads by directing his remarks, at times, to the audience at home, rather than the one in the Capitol chamber. And he delivered a plea for an end to numbers games and evasion of hard choices by those in Washington.

He trumped vocal Republicans with a fast ad-lib, after they mocked him for saying he would use Congressional Budget Office numbers, rather than those of the White House budget office, to measure his progress.

"You can laugh, my fellow Republicans," he said, staring at the GOP's side of the chamber. But the CBO numbers, he added, were "more conservative and closer to right" than those of the Republican White House in recent years. The Democratic side of the aisle erupted with prolonged cheers for their guy.

In some ways, though, Mr. Clinton's performance may have been a missed opportunity. He joked at the outset about giving a long speech, then kept his word by going on for an hour, sometimes repeating himself and occasionally wandering off into snatches of his stump speeches.

Offered a viewing audience in the tens of millions -- quite likely his best chance to put his personal spin on the plan he has developed -- he said little about the spending cuts that many regard as crucial to the success of his deficit plan. And he left the details of his tax proposals until the final minutes of his address, when many listeners may have tuned out and therefore missed his claims about how the middle class would be spared much of the burden.

While Mr. Clinton's purpose in delivering a wide-ranging speech seems unclear, the nature of his bet on the economic plan is not. He is staking everything on the belief that Americans want Washington to do something about the economy -- and that the demands for action will drown out the cries of those who feel unfairly singled out for sacrifice by the plan.

After years of rising red ink, he said, "we cannot deny the reality of our condition. We have got to play the hand we were dealt and play it as well as we can."

Unless the president can sell his package deal to the public, it could soon unravel, as he himself acknowledged last night.

"This economic plan cannot please everybody," he said. "If the package is picked apart, there will be something that will anger each of us. But if it is taken as a whole, it will help all of us."

Standing before a joint session of Congress for the first time, Mr. Clinton seemed to be holding a weak hand. His vote total in the election -- just 43 per cent -- does not inspire fear on Capitol Hill. And there is a growing perception among Republicans and Democrats that this president can be pushed around, as he was when he compromised on the issue of gays in the military.

Then there was the man who wasn't there in the House chamber but who could do more than anyone, except Mr. Clinton, to insure the plan's success or failure: Ross Perot. An endorsement by the Texas billionaire would validate the administration's claims that its deficit-reduction plan is real, and could sway the opinions of the 19 percent of the electorate who supported Mr Perot's candidacy last fall.

But such a declaration of support seems unlikely, even though Mr. Clinton has already adopted a number of Perot ideas and even gave him a personal briefing on the package yesterday.

Against these odds, Mr. Clinton is employing whatever authority he can muster as a newly sworn-in national leader. His singular strength, as president, is his ability to go straight to the people and ask them to keep the heat on Congress. As part of an ambitious public-relations plan being mapped out by the White House, he will make weekly campaign-style trips around the country, to make a direct appeal for support.

By proposing a carefully calibrated plan in the first month of his presidency, Mr. Clinton has succeeded in demonstrating a willingness to act, for which he is likely to win praise, even from those who dislike parts of the package. That puts pressure on Congress to go along, or risk appearing to be reviving the old Washington blame game that Mr. Clinton referred to last night.

"The time has come for the blame to end," he said in challenging to Congress to take more responsibility for the nation's future.

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