Acting like Roosevelt is beneficial to Clinton ON POLITICS

JACK GEMOND & JULES WITCOVER

February 24, 1993|By JACK GEMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's all-out campaign for his economic reform package has revived comparisons with the legislative blitz of 60 years ago marking Franklin D. Roosevelt's heralded "First 100 Days."

Clinton promised as much while a candidate, conjuring up the image of a new president lifting a demoralized nation by its bootstraps by his sheer energy and innovations.

That image quickly began to fade with the two early bumps in the road -- Pentagon opposition to ending discrimination against gays in the military and his twin strikeouts on naming his attorney general before finally settling on a third choice.

Roosevelt in 1933 didn't have to worry about either problem. TC With racial discrimination, let alone sexual-preference discrimination, still entrenched in the military and little influential pressure then to end it, the matter never came up.

As for his Cabinet appointments, the country was in such dire straits that Roosevelt asked the Senate to confirm the whole batch at once, and it was done, without hearings. He called all members of the Cabinet into the Oval Office right after his own inaugural and had them sworn in en masse.

FDR also took office in a climate of economic woe far worse than exists today. Banks were shutting down even before his famous bank-closing order and unemployed men were still selling apples on the street. His best-remembered line, that the nation had "nothing to fear but fear itself," was a measure of the public mood as he declared that bold action was required immediately. He got it in the first week, as Congress passed the first piece of New Deal legislation, the emergency banking bill.

Roosevelt also made his first presidential "fireside chat" over the radio that first Sunday night of his administration, informing millions glued to their sets: "I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, why it was done and what the next steps are going to be." Digging the country out, he said, "is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail."

While there obviously is no comparison in terms of urgency between FDR's situation in 1933 and Clinton's in 1993, the objectives and the rhetoric are much the same. Clinton in his State of the Union address told Congress, and the millions watching on television, that "we are all in this together."

When Clinton took his oath of office and obliquely criticized former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush for the country's economic plight, it could have been FDR talking about Herbert Hoover. Clinton said: ". . . We have not made change our friend. We know we have to face hard truths and take strong steps, but we have not done so. Instead, we have drifted, and that drifting has eroded our resources, fractured our economy and shaken our confidence."

In his inaugural address, Clinton referred directly to his role model, saying, "Let us resolve to make our government a place for what Franklin Roosevelt called bold, persistent experimentation, a government for our tomorrows, not our yesterdays."

We are seeing now how Clinton hopes to act in the FDR model. His trip to Silicon Valley, where he disclosed plans to spur high-technology development through a government-business partnership, and another partnership with the airline industry outlined at the Boeing plant near Seattle, suggests an intention to make government a player in industry to a degree not seen since World War II.

The flaps over Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, the two women headed for attorney general until "nannyism" brought them down, seem more and more irrelevant as time goes by. The gays-in-the-military issue will haunt Clinton again once the six-month cooling-off period is over. But for now, Clinton's burst of energy and innovation in the FDR fashion has put him back on track.

He will not come close to replicating FDR's "First 100 Days" of accomplishment. Congress does not see the situation as anywhere near as desperate as it was 60 years ago.

But Clinton's ability so far to rally support from the voters, as demonstrated in poll figures of 70 percent or more approval of his agenda, tax increases and all, indicates that he has a fighting chance to succeed over a longer pull. And if so, projecting an FDR-like image of a president who intends to shake things up will have proved to be a key.

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