Clinton tries to rebuild image in visit to Md. cul-de-sac

June 04, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

FREDERICK -- As he tries to rebuild his image, his staff and the foundation of his wobbly presidency, Bill Clinton went back to the brick and mortar of campaign basics yesterday, visiting a housing construction site in the Maryland suburbs to tout low interest rates and his economic plan.

Like Super Tuesday revisited, Mr. Clinton waded into the land of Big Wheels and redwood decks, trying to reconnect with middle-class voters he has alienated through weeks of pricey haircuts, Hollywood pals and talk of taxes and more taxes.

He put on a hard hat, toured a 3-bedroom split foyer in a neatly groomed cul-de-sac, talked about welfare reform and investment tax credits, and shook every hand that came his way.

There were shouts of, "Don't let them push you around out there!" But just outside the River Walk subdivision of single-family houses and townhouses, a sign hanging from an older Frederick home sent a different message to the president.

"Haircuts here," the homemade sign boasted. A $300 figure was crossed out, marked down to $200.

Yesterday, seizing upon some good economic news -- a seven-year high in new home sales in April and continued low interest rates -- the president returned to his trusty, populist campaign style, telling hundreds of Frederick residents that passage of his budget bill was the key to continued low-cost loans, more jobs and a growing economy.

"That is the idea, and the critical thing is the interest rates," he said, as construction workers tacked aluminum siding on a $140,000 home with a "SOLD" sign in the window.

Mr. Clinton claimed credit for the drop in interest rates, saying that since his election and his pledge to reduce the deficit, long-term interest rates have dropped almost one percentage point.

And in an attempt to steer toward a more centrist, New Democratic-style message and appeal to this conservative pocket of middle America -- a county of Republicans and Reagan Democrats that awarded him only 33 percent of the vote in November -- he detoured into a discussion of welfare reform.

"I'll bet you that more than half the people in this audience from time to time in the last 10 or 15 years have complained about the welfare system and have said sometimes there seems like there are more incentives to stay on welfare than off," he said.

His tax bill, he continued, will "favor work over welfare forever. If you go to work, you work 40 hours a week, you have a child in your house, the tax system will lift you out of poverty."

It was barely 18 months ago that President George Bush traveled to Frederick in a remarkably similar attempt to pull his floundering presidency out of trouble. In a symbolic gesture -- much like Mr. Clinton's symbolic trip to a construction site -- Mr. Bush also bought athletic socks at a J. C. Penney's store here in November, 1991, hoping consumers would follow his example, spend money and thus stimulate the economy.

Mr. Clinton said his trip to the suburban neighborhood was "an illustration of what really counts. Coming here today and being able to put the charts and the words and the numbers with real jobs and real homes and real people's lives is what really makes this go."

But while he was received warmly by the audience, many in the crowd believed he got elected to do something else.

"I think I would prefer for him to stay in the White House tending to really, really important business," said Eleanor Tressler, a Frederick homemaker who voted for Mr. Clinton but is undecided on his performance. "This is almost like a campaign after the XTC campaign is over -- charismatic as he is."

And Mark Hamrick, a real estate title examiner sporting a "Bush/Quayle" button, took issue with the president's claim that he's responsible for low interest rates.

Asked why he came out to see Mr. Clinton, the 23-year-old Republican said, "A lot of people hated Elvis, but they went out and saw him."

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