Clinton's trip to Europe can help image at home

ON POLITICS

January 04, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- If it's true that much success in politics as in life depends on timing, the decision of President Clinton to kick off the new year Saturday with a 10-day, five-country sprint around Europe offers him a choice opportunity to start out strongly in the arena of public opinion.

History has shown that nothing boosts an American president's stock more than a high-profile trip abroad, and especially to Europe. This has been particularly true for young presidents, those with modest foreign-policy experience, and even those in deep trouble at home.

Clinton -- at 47 and with a domestic-policy background and focus -- clearly qualifies on the first two counts. And if he is not in deep trouble on his own turf, the public's judgment can at the least be said to be generally suspended on him.

The trip will take him first to a NATO summit in Brussels, then to the Czech Republic, to Russia where he will confer with President Boris Yeltsin, to Belarus and finally to Geneva to confer with Syrian President Hafez Assad on Middle East peace negotiations.

The agenda poses few pitfalls and many chances for Clinton to demonstrate his talent for schmoozing on the international stage.

Europeans seem to love youth in the American presidency.

In 1961, then 44-year-old John F. Kennedy, accompanied by his glamorous wife Jacqueline, took the continent by storm, from Paris to Vienna, despite the fact that diplomatically the trip ended in near-disaster.

In Vienna, Kennedy met Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev and was privately bullied by him, to the point that Khrushchev got the impression that the young American president was a pushover.

That impression, historians contend, was a key factor in Khrushchev's decision two months later to build the Berlin Wall between the eastern and western sectors of the politically split city, and even in his bold move a year later of putting nuclear missiles into Cuba.

Probably no other American president, however, ever received the welcome that Kennedy got when he visited Berlin the following June and delivered his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech to an estimated 150,000 West Berliners.

Presidents have also used foreign trips to try to take the American voters' focus off difficulties at home, or to boost their own spirits.

Lyndon Johnson did so at times of severe opposition to his escalation of the U.S. presence in Vietnam, and Richard Nixon did the same when the Watergate affair began closing in on him.

In both cases, foreign audiences responded enthusiastically, seemingly undeterred by their distinguished visitors' political 22 travails back home.

George Bush plunged into foreign travel with such abandon amid recession at home that it became a political liability to him, culminating in the Democratic National Committee printing a T-shirt that read on the front: "George Bush Went to Rome and All I Got Was This Lousy Recession." On the back, in the rock-concert manner, it said: "The Anywhere But America Tour," listing all the places abroad that Bush had visited as president or was scheduled to visit.

Clinton, after a roller-coaster first year in office, began to rise in the polls at year's end. But then he was hit with renewed allegations of sexual misconduct and Republican pressures for appointment of a special prosecutor to examine his role involving alleged savings-and-loan irregularities in Arkansas.

Neither of these incidents has appeared to affect his public standing materially.

But on policy matters, his ambitious proposals for sweeping health-care reform have come under extensive attack from Republicans and many in the medical and insurance communities, as well as from liberal Democrats who prefer a direct governmental single-payer approach to his proposed managed competition.

Also, his early proposals for welfare reform are certain to bring tough opposition.

For these reasons, and the history of presidential travel abroad, Clinton's first European swing as president offers him a good opportunity to get off to a strong start for 1994.

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