Almost 100 Days: How's He Doing?

GARRY WILLS

April 23, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago. -- Last week the New York Public Library put on a conference of journalists to consider how President Clinton has been doing so far. The panelists included Judy Woodruff, Tom Brokaw, Tom Wicker and Charlie Rose.

So, how is he doing? Pretty abominably, according to this group. Trying to do too much. Sliding off initiatives when he meets opposition. Making his appointments late. Causing distress signals even before his health-care plan is released.

The comments were informed, carefully stated, hedged about with provisos -- but uniformly pessimistic. They showed the kind of journalistic unanimity that Todd Gitlin deplores in the current issue of American Journalism Review. Liberals, he claims, love to criticize, and cannot stand by their man the way Tammy Wynette and Republican die-hards do.

Actually, Mr. Clinton may be spreading himself thin on chosen issues because he knows that he needs to give some core constituency the reasons to stick with him. I think the sniping that the president is receiving comes less from liberal contentiousness than from the fact that he is still in need of the fierce loyalists that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan could rely on in their darkest A president needs the kind of backer who will stay with him even when he is in trouble.

hours -- which meant, for Mr. Nixon, his whole life and, for Mr.

Reagan, the time after the Marines' deaths in Beirut and the arms sales to Khomeini.

President Carter never did have such die-hard folk behind him. Neither did Lyndon Johnson. To whom can Democrats turn as the Republicans turned to the religious right or the anti-communist crusaders?

On the assumption that Mr. Clinton is not plain stupid, any more than those around him are, I conclude that some of his early actions on the abortion gag rule, overseas money for abortion, the ecology and gay rights are motivated by a sense of need for support from the overlapping constituencies for those issues.

This is not a matter of mere numbers, though the women's vote on abortion is huge, but of intensity of support. A president needs the kind of backer who will stay with him even when he is in trouble. The logic of Mr. Clinton's actions on so many fronts is that he recognizes this need and knows that a new generation has different ''social issues'' from those the Republicans appealed to so often -- issues that these supporters care about deeply.

In that case, the champion of those issues becomes someone they cannot afford to lose. Supreme Court appointments are coming up. Gay rights are going to be vindicated, sooner or later, in the military and elsewhere (as most military leaders admit with a sigh). Mr. Clinton needs to be the person who supported this constituency early on, before the inevitable occurred.

The New York panel's report card may have been full of grades too low or too little considered. But this goes, for the moment, against the reporters' conventional wisdom.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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