Selling the Clinton Economic Plan


WASHINGTON — Washington. -- 10:30 a.m., Wednesday. The Treasury, the neo-classic monolith at 15th and Pennsylvania, next to the White House. Seven of us are shown up to a third floor office. It is decorated with oil landscapes and a framed display of U.S. bank notes and securities. A collection of silver salvers and an open mahogany cutlery box, stacked with silver flatware, are on the sideboard.

A tall, elegant, groomed, gray-haired patrician figure enters. Dark tailored suit, boldly patterned tie, he graciously shakes hands with each of us, his face cracking into fine lines as he smiles, wrinkles fanning from the corner of his eyes. He takes his seat at the head of the conference table, and beckons us to be seated.

Lloyd Bentsen, secretary of the treasury, guardian of the nation's revenues, is about to make the big sell for the Clinton economic program.

12.00 p.m., Wednesday. The Old Executive Office Building, that wedding cake of an architectural colossus at 17th and Pennsylvania, on the other side of the White House. Five of us are escorted up to the third floor. We hang around a waiting room. It smells of fresh paint, applied over the weekend for a new administration. We examine patches of the original, Victorian-rich decoration now preserved under glass on the walls and ceiling.

The original opulent paint job, in deep reds and blue, edged in gold, was applied in an age when government flaunted its power through grandiosity, a far cry from its current lean-and-mean pursuit of economy and efficiency and its obsession with rooting out fraud, waste and abuse.

An inner door opens. A dark-haired, bespectacled figure in shirt sleeves bids farewell to one group of visitors and invites us in. He offers coffee or tea, goes out to place the order, returns, throws a legal pad toward a seat in the middle of the table and sits down.

Leon Panetta, director of the Office of Management and Budget, overseer of the nation's spending, is about the make the big sell of the Clinton economic program.

At meetings like these throughout the week, senior officials have been getting the message out, quietly but effectively, to reporters. The Clinton administration is as convinced as any commercial operation that the sizzle counts as much as the steak in marketing.

The message is the message. The key is repetition. It is the gospel of James Carville, street-wise political guru of the Clinton election and unpaid -- but not unheeded -- White House adviser: know what you want to say and keep on saying it. It's as simple as his campaign mantra: "It's the economy, stupid."

Now it could be: "Happiness equals Shared Sacrifice."

Mr. Clinton is leading the public sales campaign himself with weekly outings to meet the people. Three weeks ago it was Michigan. Two weeks ago it was California. Last week it was New Jersey. This week it is expected to be Texas. Next week somewhere else. You can see his schedulers busily coloring in the map of the nation as he hopscotches across it. By year's end, he will undoubtedly have visited all 48 contiguous states, may even have gone offshore, and will almost certainly be ready to start again. The man is tireless.

In his seven weeks in power, he has visited Congress more times than most presidents have bothered to travel to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in their first terms. Last week he was on Capitol Hill to break bread -- or, to be precise, a Big Mac, which is more to the modern Everyman's taste -- with the Republicans. The previous weeks were devoted to courting the Democrats. No political support has been gained from the GOP, of course, but he earns a grudging admiration for his style.

What he has not done in all this get-out-the-word drive is hold a formal press conference, that inquisitive half hour that can be so revealing of a chief executive, who otherwise is answerable directly to no one between elections. He may have faced more questions from ordinary voters and from members of Congress than most presidents, but he has also set a new record in reluctance to meet the media on the established playing field of the press conference.

Certainly, he banters with reporters at occasional photo opportunities in the White House, which last usually two or three minutes and allow for perhaps one or two hurried questions and just as few brief answers. Mr. Clinton prefers the town meeting format where ordinary voters query him about their concerns. Nothing wrong with that. But the hooks are usually unbarbed, and he slips away as smoothly as a wily old game fish.

The parents of a sick child worry about medical access and bills. It is the cue for a policy sermon on health-care reform. An unemployed middle-aged worker sees a bleak future. It is an invitation for a treatise on industrial retraining. A student worries about college fees. It is the occasion for another outline of his national service initiative. All this is well and good. But it serves no one better than William Jefferson Clinton.

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