Image-conscious Clinton charts a new course

June 18, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, striving to show that he has his agenda and administration under control, asserted that key recent signs of economic improvement, from low interest rates to gradual job growth, directly reflect the impact of his deficit-reduction plan.

Appearing last night at his first prime-time White House news conference, Mr. Clinton used colorful charts and confident language in an effort to package a number of small achievements abroad and in Congress as major accomplishments and to convey the idea that his recent skein of troubles are now behind him.

"Here at home, America's on the move. The last few days have been impressive," Mr. Clinton said, citing impending Senate committee action on his economic plan. "This means we are putting our economic house in order."

Mr. Clinton studiously avoided getting involved in the details of the Senate negotiations over his budget package. He claimed that his broad principles were being preserved, even as the Senate Finance Committee was moving to approve a bill vastly different from the president's original proposal.

On foreign policy, Mr. Clinton declared that the new U.S.-led military crackdown in Somalia is a success, but acknowledged that American troops would stay in the troubled African nation indefinitely to guard against new violence.

On other issues, Mr. Clinton said:

* The international community will have to send some sort of multinational military force to Haiti or there will never be civil peace on that beleaguered island. He said that remains his view, even though both ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the nation's sitting military government have rejected it.

* The U.S. government would "have to consider very seriously" a plan to partition Bosnia into separate ethnic enclaves if the warring Serb, Croat and Muslim factions agreed to it.

* He still holds out hope of presenting a welfare reform plan this year that would put a limit on the time recipients could receive benefits.

The president's performance was a studied exercise in public and press relations, as he bantered jocularly with reporters while appealing over their heads to a nationwide television audience. The news conference was his first during prime-time hours and was the centerpiece of an intensified new campaign to show that he has turned the corner after his administration got off to a rocky start.

But the potential impact of Mr. Clinton's performance was undercut by the decision of two of the three big national networks not to televise the news conference live. With Mr. Clinton having conducted an afternoon news conference only two days earlier, ABC and CBS chose not to interrupt commercial programming for this one.

A series of gaffes and controversies, including the withdrawal of a top Justice Department nominee, have seen Mr. Clinton's public approval ratings sink to low levels recently and created the impression of growing White House disarray. The president angrily ended a session with the press Monday after the first question, which concerned the fitful selection process for a new Supreme Court justice.

Yesterday, Mr. Clinton admitted that he came to Washington naive about the ways of Congress and the national press corps, and said that he has learned a tough lesson.

"I knew when I came here that there would be things that I would need to learn about the processes and the way things work. I believed then, and I believe now, that if I do the big things right and deal with the big issues that eventually the other things will also work themselves out."

Appearing relaxed and self-assured, Mr. Clinton took questions for more than 30 minutes after an opening statement on Somalia and the domestic economy.

While hailing his economic program's achievements, Mr. Clinton refused to give ground on problems faced by his other chief priority, health care reform. He insisted there is a chance the program could still be approved this year, even though its introduction has been repeatedly delayed and will not come until Congress has dealt with his economic and budget legislation.

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