He's Down, He's Up, and Time Goes By Clinton's Struggles Delay Action on His Programs

June 20, 1993|By PAUL WEST

Just in time for summer, that ol' thrill-seeker, Bill Clinton, is off on another wild ride. After plunging straight downhill for months, his roller-coaster presidency twisted abruptly skyward last week. The upsurge began with his surprise announcement, to glowing reviews, of a new Supreme Court justice on Monday, and continued at midweek with a spurt of victories in Congress for key parts of his domestic agenda, including the budget, campaign finance reform and national service.

This latest turn of events may have come just in time for Mr. Clinton. His version of the Great American Scream Machine has badly strained the faith of his fellow Democrats, who have begun to worry openly that the presidency is slipping through their fingers again. ''You have people going around saying he's going to be a one-term president,'' a Democratic veteran of Capitol Hill said the other day. Even some of Mr. Clinton's oldest friends and supporters think he is on the verge of being permanently damaged by the troubles of his first six months in office.

His loss of political clout has been evident for some time. He had to withdraw the nomination of an old friend, Lani Guinier, because he couldn't risk another fight with Congress. Unexpected struggles over his budget proposals have forced delays in the introduction of his sweeping health-care reform plan, which may ultimately get scaled back sharply or pushed far off into the future. And if he doesn't significantly rebuild his political strength, Congress is unlikely to approve more than token health reforms for the foreseeable future.

Worst of all, from Mr. Clinton's standpoint, is how he's increasingly being defined in the public's mind: indecisive, undisciplined and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.

Mr. Clinton vigorously disputes such criticism. ''This is the most decisive presidency you've had in a very long time on all the big issues that matter,'' he said last week. By replacing his communications director, holding two press conferences in three days and reaching out to the White House press corps in ways large and small, the president was saying that nothing is really wrong with his policies -- it's simply a case of his message not getting through.

There was evidence to the contrary, however, in a Los Angeles Times poll released last week. Mr. Clinton may have gotten elected by campaigning as a ''new Democrat,'' but most Americans -- 53 percent -- now see his economic program ''as a return to the tax-and-spend policies Democrats have been criticized for in the past.''

Interviews with Democratic politicians, including Clinton associates, House and Senate veterans, and present and former White House aides, suggest the sources of Mr. Clinton's problems are many. Some might be considered beyond his control, such as distractions posed by foreign crises or even the fact that he was elected with a minority of the vote, which meant he came to office with a limited amount of political capital to expend on his ambitious agenda. Then there is a recalcitrant Congress, whose members are unwilling to take their lead from anyone except the voters in their home state or district.

Most of Mr. Clinton's troubles, however, have their roots in the president himself. He clearly tried to do too much, too soon, which caused him to lose his focus on economic issues. His desire to please all the constituencies in his party led him to abandon the political center and tilt his domestic agenda to the liberal side. His habit of waiting too long to make decisions, apparently for fear of making a political mistake, has allowed some problems -- such as the Guinier nomination -- to spin out of control. He is faulted for having a weak White House staff, a defect he has been trying to correct with a series of shake-ups, and for dragging his feet on appointments, which has left many important government departments without new leadership.

On Capitol Hill, he is seen as much too willing to compromise key principles. That has led to defections by Democrats in Congress, who have concluded that there is no penalty attached to refusing to follow his lead. Coupled with his much publicized ''repositioning'' to the political center, the suspicion is that the president really has no driving principles.

Re-establishing his credibility with the public won't be easy. The L.A. Times poll found 58 percent say they do not have a clear idea of where Mr. Clinton hopes to take the country. If there was any solace for the president, it may have been the fact that most people blame his troubles on inexperience and remain optimistic that his performance will improve with time.

For his part, Mr. Clinton has, from the start of his administration, tried to wriggle out from under the political microscope. He deplores Washington's obsession with who's up and who's down -- not least when he's the one being graded.

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