White House scores big in user-friendly mode Clinton connects with public, gets flood of response

March 07, 1993|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- He's on-line. He's wired for real time. He' Bill Clinton, the interactive president.

Almost halfway through his First 100 Days, Mr. Clinton is making good on his campaign promise to get off to an explosive start.

In the process, he seems intent on redefining the presidency, particularly the ways in which an activist chief executive communicates with a nation of 250 million people.

His budding relationship with the public is paying dividends, at the moment, in terms of rising job approval ratings for the president and popular support for his economic plan. It has also produced an avalanche of mail and phone calls, prompting warnings that Mr. Clinton may be overloading the system and raising expectations that can't be met.

The overall goal is to keep the pressure on Congress to approve his initiatives. But there are signs that long-held attitudes about the government are changing as Mr. Clinton harnesses his seemingly endless personal energy and his considerable talents a communicator to the new tools at his disposal.

"There's almost no limit to the things we can do," says Jeff Eller, a White House specialist on the new communications technology. "If we don't wear out first."

Mr. Clinton's leadership style is based on the same approach he used successfully in his drive for the White House: a blend of high-tech imagery, tactile sensitivity, modern media strategies and old-fashioned politics. Above all, however, it revolves around Mr. Clinton's unique ability to communicate, both verbally and nonverbally, and his grasp of policy details.

"He's as good as they come," says Michael K. Deaver, image master of the Reagan White House, whose news media strategies were a model for Mr. Clinton and his advisers. "He's very, very smart, and he's as good a student of government and the way it works as any president we've had in my lifetime."

In an effort to project the image of a president in close touch with the public, as well as to bond with younger voters crucial to his political future, Mr. Clinton often uses the buzzwords of today's world of high-speed computers and instant communications.

"We were all born for the information age," he said in a recent speech. "We are wired for real time."

His complaints about the inability to send and receive electronic mail because the White House computers had been dismantled before he arrived were quickly passed on to reporters, and he recently took the opportunity to send an E-mail message on a kids-only computer network. In practice, however, the president is a pen-and-paper person; it's his young aides who are addicted PCs and Powerbook computers.

Instead, it is Mr. Clinton's skill at interacting in the traditional sense -- including an almost instinctual ability to connect with a live audience, by looking into people's faces and reading their moods -- that is at the heart of his success as a communicator. Even his aides admit privately that his Oval Office address to prepare the public for his economic plan -- delivered straight into the lens of a TV camera with no audience present -- was the communications low point of his first weeks in office.

"The crowd almost puts him at ease with the camera," notes Mr. Deaver. "He plays off the people, and he shares the camera with other people."

Mr. Clinton is building on this strength by going directly to the public in weekly trips around the country. Smoothly produced "town hall" meetings let him talk with citizens in an informal setting, reinforcing the desired image of a down-to-earth chief executive who is interested in the concerns of average Americans and is determined to remain free of the Washington "bubble" that envelops most presidents.

"People learn a lot about individuals on television by watching small things, and they've learned a lot about the president by not just listening to what he says but how he says it," says Mandy Grunwald, a news media consultant and one of the architects of the Clinton communications strategy.

Unlike Mr. Reagan, who did best when working from a script, Mr. Clinton "flourishes in uncontrolled settings," she adds. "We know he can handle anything."

Peter Clarke, former dean of the University of Southern California's communications school, agrees and says Mr. Clinton in a very different posture of interaction than any president we've had": His body language in these informal settings makes him appear reasonable, open and considerate toward the ideas and emotions of ordinary people.

The town hall meetings also represent a step away from the sound-bite mentality that has governed political communication for decades, but which began to change with Ross Perot's 30-minute infomercials in the 1992 campaign.

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