Promise of change spurs activist White House ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

September 22, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The day before President Clinton's speech on health care, the White House was teeming with people. In the Rose Garden, several hundred crowded under a tent for a ceremony marking the signing of the legislation creating the new national service program. As they left, about 150 radio and television talk show hosts replaced them for briefings -- first from Hillary Clinton, then from the president himself -- on health care.

In the driveway, Speaker of the House Tom Foley was leaving after a meeting in which he discussed how he would try to help minimize the damage from the defection of House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt on the North American Free Trade fTC Agreement. Along the drive, there were a dozen or more cameras and microphones set up by the visiting television crews.

In the West Lobby, there were several groups of visitors -- a clutch of columnists in one corner waiting to have lunch with Clinton, a half-dozen Hispanic-Americans visiting the staff on the NAFTA question, four military experts who had arrived to offer their advice on everything from the collapse of the Russian government to Bosnia to the Polish elections.

The White House is often a busy place, but even veterans of 30 or more years of working there were impressed by the sheer numbers of people and variety of issues on the administration's agenda.

The lesson, of course, is that this is a Democratic administration and, as such, one committed to activist government and trying to find governmental solutions to national problems. Indeed, if there can be a single criterion for separating Republicans from Democrats, it is this Democratic reliance on government activism.

The operative question now is whether the American people are prepared to accept such activism or, alternatively, so jaded by 12 years of hearing that government is the problem rather than the solution that they are not open for discussion.

On the face of it, the election returns of 1992 would suggest a willingness among voters to try again. Although no one could fairly define Bill Clinton's 43 percent of the vote as a mandate for specific proposals, the 62 percent of the voters who cast their ballots against the incumbent president, George Bush, clearly could be considered a demand for change.

So far the president has had a tough time converting what he took to be the message of 1992 into an agenda for governing in 1993. He discovered, for example, that there clearly was no majority for revoking the prohibition against homosexuals in the armed forces. His economic package managed to slip through by a whisker in both the House and Senate. His national service plan had to be altered and cut back to make it through Congress.

But Clinton is nothing if not committed to the notion government can work in the end. So now he is out on the line with his plan for "reinventing government," with the campaign to win approval for NAFTA and, most importantly, the health care initiative. The president's reading is that voters wanted change and it is now a question of defining which changes they will accept and which changes Congress will swallow.

The president faces two fundamental problems in seeking change. The first, obviously is institutional inertia -- simply the resistance to doing things differently from the way they have been done because that involves changes in who holds power and influence. Thus, for example, on his plans to reform the government, the most serious problem may be the committee and subcommittee chairmen in Congress who are jealous of their prerogatives to decide what happens to, for example, the Agriculture Department. Similarly, on NAFTA, the critical resistance comes from organized labor, union leaders not willing to take a chance on the long run that can cost their members jobs in the short run.

The second and perhaps most serious obstacle to Clinton's approach is the cynicism and querulousness among voters who have long since given up on the idea government can do anything efficiently or effectively.

But this is a Democratic administration run by a self-confessed policy wonk. And, as such, it is an administration that has no choice but to press ahead with its ambitious plans. And if the White House becomes a zoo once in a while, so be it.

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