A President Who Goes for Win-Win

ELLEN GOODMAN

February 22, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- What a difference a year makes. Remember the rap on Candidate Bill Clinton? That he wanted to be all things to all people? That he couldn't make hard decisions? That he was afraid of alienating anyone?

On one of those endless talk shows -- some candidate-on-the-couch hour -- he was asked how his childhood with an alcoholic and sometimes abusive stepfather had formed his psyche. He answered, ''It made me dislike conflict. I tend to be a people-pleaser.''

Well, the man who went to Congress last week was no feel-good Willie by any stretch of imagination. For the first time in years, a president delivered a speech without reaching into that small generic stash of heroes to sweeten the message. There were no pretty phrases in his hour- long economic lecture, no mornings in America, no eloquence to stir the blood and raise the goosebumps.

Not once did Bill Clinton bite his little-boy lip. Nor was his program designed to make everybody whistle while they went to work.

If there were promises in the economic plan, there were also enough taxes to displease every one of the people some of the time. Or, as the man who dislikes conflict said succinctly, ''If the package is picked apart, there'll be something that will anger each of us and won't please anybody.''

Does this mark some turnabout in Mr. Clinton's character -- a deliberate bolt from crowd pleaser to chief combatant? Not exactly.

I never did think that Mr. Clinton's style was just ingratiating. If I needed a label, I'd call it a style of mediating.

If we must go back to psycho-roots, that son of a semifunctional family assumed the role of holding the family together. As a politician he was a good listener, a decent synthesizer. He was most skilled at keeping all the parties at the table until they had made what some called, disparagingly, a compromise. Others of course called it resolving conflicts.

The man has shown a remarkable ability to make and keep connections. Not just between individuals but between constituencies and even ideas. In computer terms, he reminds me of an X TREE. In human terms he can keep all the political puppies in the basket.

There are leaders who are more comfortable working in concert than dominating. It's most true for women, at home or at work. But it's also true for the new president.

Some people think ''either-or.'' President Clinton thinks ''and.'' You can hear it in his language. Rights and responsibilities. You can hear it in his policies. Jobs and deficit reduction.

Some leaders think win-lose. But in the management guru-ese of the era, this president tries to wrestle down an elusive formula for win-win. The dislike -- even fear -- of conflict can make people avoid trouble. It can also fuel the effort to settle troubles.

Listening to the sober outlines of his program as he takes the show on the road, what I hear is a man who's trying to design an economic peace treaty, not a war plan. A treaty for a society that's already in conflict.

The moral backbone and the political savvy behind this balancing act of a program is the stated attempt to lessen the struggles between rich and poor, old and young, black and white, between visions of the short run and the long run, between the values of individualism and those of community. Such a plan of economic togetherness is altogether in character for this mediator. Indeed, the one plea Mr. Clinton delivered with real emotion was: ''The test of this plan cannot be 'What is in it for me'; it has got to be 'What is in it for us.' ''

I don't know if the new president can, as he put it, ''scale the walls of people's skepticism.'' Those walls run pretty high. Skepticism about government. Skepticism about everything from the ability to reach the underclass to the ability to improve the environment. Skepticism about progress itself.

Nor do I know if his program can turn around the economy. Our economy is as dependent on the people who run GM and IBM as on the people who run the government. What happens in Europe and Asia may have as much impact on American jobs as what happens in Washington.

But the man who came to Congress last week had the sound of a leader who believes that resolving conflicts is worth a fight. What a difference a year makes.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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