Clinton may be squeezed between economy, cities ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- President Clinton may be caught in a tight squeeze between competing constituencies as he tries to find the precise mix of spending cuts, taxes and new spending that can be passed quickly by Congress.

The problem, essentially one of Clinton's own making, centers on how much of his so-called stimulus package -- principally new spending on the infrastructure -- can be salvaged in light of the continuing indications that the economy may be improving more rapidly than forecast. Unsurprisingly, the recent figures are being read by the Republicans and some of the more conservative Democrats in Congress as a signal that the stimulus isn't needed, after all.

In fact, the economic figures are not that consistently strong. It is true that unemployment dipped slightly last month, but new claims remain high and there are still 9 million Americans out of work and several million others holding jobs that pay substantially less than they used to earn.

Beyond that, there are new reports almost every week of major employers making permanent cuts in their work forces. And another very major employer, the Department of Defense, will be adding heavily to that list as the Pentagon budget is reduced and more military bases are closed.

But the real imperative for Clinton in salvaging his stimulus plan is the political debt he owes to big city mayors, and particularly to black political leaders. In his campaign last year Clinton paid far less attention than most Democratic candidates to pursuing the black vote in the cities. Indeed, projecting just such inattention was part of the strategy he followed in presenting himself as a "different kind of Democrat" who could appeal to the so-called Reagan Democrats.

The strategy worked. The turnout among blacks declined, but about 85 percent of those who did vote supported Clinton. And the votes Clinton lost because of lower turnout were more than offset by his success in winning back working-class white Democrats who had deserted the party for Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the last three elections.

Moreover, candidate Clinton got away with this strategy in large measure because black political leaders -- including such prominent mayors as Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore, Norman Rice of Seattle and Sharpe James of Newark -- were pragmatic enough to recognize that the first priority had to be winning the election. Even some of those who had been most devoutly committed to Jesse Jackson in previous campaigns stuck with Clinton when he made a point of distancing himself from the civil rights leader.

These mayors are now among those who stand to benefit most from the stimulus package. It is in their cities that most of the money for summer jobs would be spent and that the most money is needed for job-producing projects like new bridges and highways. That's the reason both the U.S. Conference of Mayors and National League of Cities have thrown themselves behind the Clinton economic plan.

But one of the dirty little secrets of American politics today is that there is still a great deal of racism abroad in the land. And any political professional will tell you that the problems of the big cities evoke remarkably little sympathy in the suburbs or the smaller communities of the Midwest and Far West.

So Clinton may be a different kind of Democrat, but he is a Democrat, nonetheless. And he will be expected to deliver, up to a point. If part of the stimulus package has to be sacrificed to win votes from recalcitrant conservatives, the president will find himself obliged to find some compensating help for the cities.

The delicate balancing act required of Clinton is one of the reasons the White House and its allies in Congress are pressing for fast action on the economic program and want to see it promulgated before the whole question of health care is put on the table.

Opinion polls suggest there is a willingness in the electorate to make some sacrifices in the hope of dealing with fundamental weaknesses in the economy and the ability of the United States to compete internationally. But there is no reason to believe there is any similar concern about helping big cities deal with their equally fundamental problems.

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