World stage rarely boosts the fortunes of presidents ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

July 10, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- It's no trick for a president of the United States to dominate the stage at a summit meeting. There is, after all, only one superpower still standing.

But in domestic political terms, the operative question for President Clinton is whether his prominence at the economic summit in Tokyo matters.

History suggests otherwise.

Presidents always seem to enjoy playing on the international stage, and Clinton was no exception. At the very least, it was an opportunity to escape for a few days from those vexing questions about, for example, what he intends to do about the demands of the Congressional Black Caucus in a final version of his economic plan.

But except in times of national peril, when Americans always rally around any president in overwhelming numbers, poll-takers find that voters are not very interested in international meetings, let alone impressed. A year ago President George Bush's dominant role at the same G-7 meeting Clinton just attended did absolutely nothing to improve his position in the opinion polls in relationship to either Clinton or independent candidate Ross Perot.

There is nothing new about any of this. Just 15 years ago President Jimmy Carter achieved one of the signal accomplishments of American foreign policy by brokering the peace treaty at Camp David between Egypt and Israel -- and gained 1 percentage point in his approval rating in the Gallup Poll.

Despite that history, however, there was some obvious value for Clinton in carrying out a foreign policy responsibility without any apparent missteps. Because of his limited credentials in international matters, the new president was under some pressure to demonstrate he was comfortable in such a role. And that pressure was intensified somewhat by Clinton's abortive attempt this spring to rally European allies to act "quickly and decisively" in Bosnia. This time Clinton simply signed on to another hand-wringing declaration that underlined how impotent the rest of the world has become in confronting the chaos in the former Yugoslavia.

The president and his spokesmen tried to put the best face on the Tokyo meeting.

Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd M. Bentsen insisted with a straight face that this was a "jobs summit" that would translate in economic benefits at home.

Mickey Kantor, the trade representative, went a step further, predicting that the tentative and partial agreement on reducing tariffs would produce 1.4 million new jobs in the United States over the next 10 years.

Clinton himself, applying his own gloss at a post-summit news conference, said the meeting had produced "real, substantive benefits for the people who sent their leaders here."

In fact, the tariff agreement was an incremental gain at best. The United States also failed to win any hard concessions from the Japanese on the trade imbalance, and the plan to provide help to Russia was watered down to the point that it was virtually unrecognizable.

The president also made a point of going into what the White House likes to call his "campaign mode" while in Japan, speaking to university students and walking the streets with Hillary Rodham Clinton at his side. And there seemed to be no question he attracted some unusual interest among the Japanese.

But the hard evidence of those dratted opinion polls suggests that the "campaign mode" is not the one voters at home are seeking. Clinton made two such trips around the United States this spring and found that his approval rating declined after each of them -- the only possible inference being that Americans are most interested in the president paying attention to the central issue of the economy.

There have been some signs that Clinton's plunge to record depths in the opinion polls has bottomed out. Three different surveys have shown his approval rating stabilized for the last two to three weeks at 35 percent to 40 percent, a low point but still an interruption of a politically frightening trend downward.

Although no one knows quite why this has happened, the poll-takers are guessing that it is a natural product of a period in which his economic plan has made some progress and in which his performance has not been undermined by some embarrassing White House gaffe.

It is even possible Clinton's standing will rise in the weeks ahead -- but probably not because he was such a smash in Tokyo.

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