Reassuring the public to be Clinton's next test



WASHINGTON -- Every White House staff likes to believe that the president, whoever it may be, is trusted enough by his constituents so that he can bring the nation along with him behind his program. President Clinton's staff is no exception, and shortly we will see if that is a valid expectation.

After a week of taking the waters at San Diego, both the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton plan to spend the second week of the congressional recess in an intense campaign to solidify public opinion behind his health care reform plan. At the same time, some 40 leading administration officials will fan out across the country with the same message.

The stakes are high. The understanding in both the White House and Congress is that the administration must produce a plan that can enlist enough support in the polls so that jittery senators and representatives will be convinced it is a smart vote in an election year -- or at least smarter than going on record against reform of the health care system.

There appears to be something of a window of opportunity for the administration. Just the fact that Congress is enjoying a recess means there are fewer prominent Republicans within range of the network television cameras and eager to trash Clinton whenever the lights go on. And with his news conference behind him, the president -- and the country -- may get a respite from the Whitewater stories. The one thing crystal clear is that the press is growing increasingly self-conscious about the pursuit of the same old angles day after day.

The White House had hoped Clinton could make a clear and convincing case for health care reform in the aftermath of the Sept. 22 nationally televised speech in which he outlined the plan. He flew to Tampa for a town meeting on the issue that received lavish and largely favorable attention, and Hillary Rodham Clinton spent most of the next week winning rave reviews for her testimony before congressional committees.

The strategy then, says Ira Magaziner, the chief architect of the plan, called for four or five weeks of heavy presidential involvement in the selling of the program. But then the exploding crisis in Somalia and long and difficult negotiations with Congress on the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Brady bill on gun control intervened, and that chance was lost. If it had not been, Magaziner says today, "the whole debate would have been defined differently."

Instead much of the defining, at least for a significant minority of voters, has been done by critics of the plan and the health insurance industry in particular. The most surprising thing Magaziner has found in advocating the program, he says, has been "the difficulty of explaining what's not in the proposals" -- meaning many of the frightening prospects described by its critics.

The White House has not always been totally effective, either. The issue of how the plan will be financed is still significant and unresolved. The president and his advisers have taken to describing how "flexible" they can be on the financing question so long as the plan includes the basic elements -- meaning, in effect, that they would settle for any financing scheme that can make it through Congress.

The administration now has settled on four or five main points that the president, the first lady and other officials will be focusing on next week. The message has been boiled down, says deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, to one "that everybody can understand." The basics are guaranteed and universal coverage, freedom of choice of physicians and protection against arbitrary decisions by insurance companies to cancel or deny coverage.

But Ickes, who is first and foremost a political operative, understands that voters must make what he calls "a leap of faith" to support anything as thoroughgoing and radical as the changes in the health care system Clinton is seeking to effect. "The really critical phrase is reassurance," Ickes says.

And that, of course, is where the ability of the president will be tested in the next few weeks. At the most elementary level, the question is whether Americans will believe Bill Clinton.

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