Clinton has lots of time to improve low ratings ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

April 29, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is taking his lumps in al the chewing-over of his first hundred days in the White House. Comparisons with Franklin D. Roosevelt's whirlwind of legislative initiatives in 1933 are leaving him with plenty of egg on his face. But he has only himself to blame.

Clinton's beginning as president has been no worse than that of most of his predecessors and a good deal better than some. In last year's campaign, however, he set up as a yardstick by which voters should measure him that same 100-day period 60 years ago when FDR took office in the depths of the Depression.

In his exuberance, candidate Clinton greatly overstated the similarities between the economic shape of the country when Roosevelt succeeded Republican Herbert Hoover and now. In the process he misgauged the readiness of Congress, and of the electorate, to swallow harsh remedies.

Although the banking system last fall was still trying to recover from the savings-and-loan scandal that cost taxpayers billions and regular banks themselves were increasingly shaky, it was nothing compared with the crisis that FDR faced in 1933, and that warranted crisis action.

Collapse was so imminent that on the day before Roosevelt was to take office, Hoover called him to the White House and urged him to sign a joint proclamation then and there closing all of the nation's banks. FDR refused, telling Hoover, according to the New York Times years later: "Like hell I will! If you haven't got the guts to do it yourself, I will wait until I am president to do it!"

By contrast, at the time Clinton was inaugurated, the man he was replacing, George Bush, was still insisting that the recession was over and the country in recovery -- a contention ridiculed at the time but subsequently borne out. While Clinton may have felt sense of urgency to bring change to Washington, it was nothing like the crisis atmosphere that drove FDR in 1933 -- and brought him strong congressional and public support for the emergency actions he took.

Roosevelt also had big Democratic majorities in both houses -- 310 Democrats and five generally friendly Farmer-Labor Party members to only 117 Republicans in the House, and in the Senate 60 Democrats and one Farmer-Labor member, to 35 Republicans. With only 96 senators sitting then, FDR was in stronger shape in the Senate than Clinton is today with 57 Democrats out of 100.

When it came to Cabinet appointments too, Roosevelt hit the ground running, compared with Clinton's problems over prospective attorneys general that extended weeks beyond his inauguration. The Senate confirmed FDR's full Cabinet so swiftly that he was able to swear it in en masse in the Oval Office on Inauguration Day.

Clinton, to be sure, threw up some of his own barriers to achieving a first hundred days anywhere like what Roosevelt pulled off. His decision to make the issue of gays in the military a first order of business produced a diversion as well as doubts about his political astuteness. More notably, his failure to gauge the trouble that Senate Republicans would cause him on his economic stimulus package by playing the filibuster card brought his first hundred days to a close on a somewhat sour note.

Still, for all that, Clinton has delivered on one important point -- he has stepped up to critical domestic problems, as he said he would. But he has found out, as have most presidents since FDR days, that events have a way of dictating priorities that may be different from those on which he intended to focus "like a laser."

Foreign policy questions, from aid to Russia to what to do about the war in Bosnia, have intruded.

But the first hundred days are only that. If they were a whole presidential term, Bush, who was at unprecedentedly high levels of approval after his first hundred, would very likely still be in the White House.

Clinton has plenty of time to improve his low ratings at this point if he can convince Congress, and the voters, that the programs he advocated as a candidate are worth the price they will cost.

That is the reality check that he, and the rest of the country, must face in the remaining 1,361 days of his term.

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