'Agenda': Uncertain term in Clinton White House



WASHINGTON -- The buzz here these days is about Bob Woodward's new book, "The Agenda -- Inside the Clinton White House." The Washington Post has published four lengthy excerpts, Woodward has been ubiquitous on television, and the book is selling fast and furious on Capitol Hill.

Much of the attention the book has received so far has been focused, predictably, on some of the juicier passages about such things as President Clinton's occasional temper tantrums. But Woodward's book is not sensationalist in its thrust. Instead, it is a good reporter's painstaking account of the formulation and promulgation of the president's economic recovery program during his first few months in the White House, much of the story told by those most involved in that enterprise both inside the administration and in Congress.

What makes it so intriguing to the political community here is the continuing uncertainty after almost a year and a half about the way this White House operates -- or, to put it more bluntly, whether the president and those in his inner circle have the foggiest idea of what they are doing.

Woodward's book does not paint a pretty picture. It describes continuing tensions between different blocs of advisers vying for Clinton's support and glaring failures to keep him informed. The president himself is sometimes painfully indecisive, sometimes painfully naive about how Washington and Congress work. Hillary Rodham Clinton is pictured, to no one's surprise, as a significant force in trying to salvage her husband's program.

It should not be forgotten, of course, that this is history -- instant history perhaps but history nonetheless -- covering something that happened last year, and is over and done. It may be totally unfair to infer from that experience any judgment about the way the White House operates today.

Moreover, for all the glitches in the process, the president did win approval for a tax and budget plan that, justifiably or not, now can be given at least some of the credit for the improvement in the economy over the last year. So, in a sense, how he got there is beside the point.

But the hard truth for the president is that doubts about the efficiency and political sophistication of the White House remain widespread. And those doubts, in turn, are fostering questions among Democrats reading opinion polls that show Clinton's approval rating at a remarkably low level considering the condition of the economy.

For many of these Democrats, the immediate question is whether it will pay to make common cause with the president on the health care reform issue and in the midterm elections. The longer-term question is whether Clinton can move into a stronger position when he faces his own re-election campaign beginning next year.

Meanwhile, the day-to-day conduct of business by the White House does little to inspire the kind of political confidence Clinton needs. Even essentially trivial episodes -- the use of that Marine helicopter for a golf outing by a White House official, for example -- add new strokes to the picture of the White House being politically inept.

Then the problems on policy toward Haiti, Bosnia and now North Korea lend credence to the critics who insist the president is out of his depth on foreign policy issues. Much of the criticism may be unfair and invalid, but it clearly has enough weight to keep the president on the defensive.

The same can be said of the continuing problems with his personal history. The Whitewater controversy is off the front pages, but just barely so. The Paula Jones lawsuit continues to hang over his head. This was not the best time, in short, for Bob Woodward's book about how the Clinton White House staggered through its first major test last year. Although it was not the intention, Woodward's account adds weight to the cliche about a White House in disarray.

The bottom line is that Clinton badly needs the kind of success that will change the political atmospherics. And the opportunity lies most obviously in the health care issue. If the president can persuade Congress to approve a plan that even gives the impression of meeting his requirements, he can claim victory and dissolve some of those doubts about the abilities of his administration and his own qualities as a national leader.

And perhaps he can make the next book about life "inside the Clinton White House" less intriguing.

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