Clinton's standing gets a boost among voters, lawmakers after Haiti deal U.S. INTERVENTION IN HAITI

September 21, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon and Karen Hosler | Carl M. Cannon and Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In a way, the focus on this week's events in Haiti has been on almost everyone except President Clinton. It has been on former President Jimmy Carter, on retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, on exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and on soon-to-be-deposed Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras.

However, it was Mr. Clinton who directed the military, who signed off on the final decisions and who controlled events. In the United States, it was Mr. Clinton who had the most to lose politically. And his success in landing U.S. troops without losing any American lives has, at least for now, bolstered his public standing.

Heading into the crisis, Mr. Clinton was a president with no military experience, with a 39 percent approval rating, and with looming midterm elections in which virtually any Democrat in trouble had put distance between himself and the first Democratic president in 12 years.

Now, this may have changed.

On Capitol Hill, the U.S. occupation of Haiti is unpopular. But leaders predicted that Mr. Clinton's legislative agenda would fare better than if U.S. forces had actually invaded.

A flurry of public-opinion surveys released yesterday shows that Mr. Clinton received an immediate boost, not only in his handling of the Haiti crisis but in his overall job performance rating as well.

One Gallup poll, in findings replicated elsewhere, showed that approval of his handling of the Haiti crisis had risen from 35 percent to 51 percent since the U.S. occupation, while those expressing disapproval had dropped from 50 percent to 40 percent.

"What he's done here is shown a couple of things to the American people," said Tony Coelho, a Clinton administration adviser. "He showed that he's persistent. He showed that he's willing to be tough."

In doing so, several officials believe, Mr. Clinton may have crossed an important point in his presidency: the juncture at which he began to look like a commander-in-chief. It was a long odyssey.

Twenty-five years ago, Bill Clinton was a college student who avoided the military draft, led anti-war demonstrations on foreign soil and wrote to a U.S. Army colonel, explaining why the $H Vietnam War had fostered in his heart a "loathing" for the military.

To many Americans critical of Mr. Clinton, those events of a quarter-century ago might as well have happened yesterday. But now, as commander-in-chief, Mr. Clinton was confronting his own war. In an Oval Office meeting Aug. 26, Mr. Clinton was presented with the final version of the Pentagon's battle plans for invading Haiti. Even the date was set: Sept. 19.

As the invasion approached on Sunday, Mr. Clinton had one last card in play -- the Carter negotiating team -- but the decisive hour was at hand. At 5:45 p.m., Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary William J. Perry were in the Oval Office when the president issued the "execute order" with a simple command: "Go."

In the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, the takeoff caused a brief stir, as suspicious Haitian generals feared that the Carter negotiations were a ruse. But inside the Pentagon, and to some degree, in the rest of the United States, the moment may have answered a long-standing question about Mr. Clinton.

"There is the feeling in the country, 'Does he have the capacity to be president?' " Mr. Coelho said. "This weekend, he showed he did. The way he handled himself was very presidential."

Kenneth Duberstein, who served in both the Reagan and Bush administrations -- and is close to General Powell -- put it this way:

"The jury is still out. Jimmy Carter and Sam Nunn and Colin Powell did very well because they averted what everybody thought was going to be a disaster: the insertion of American troops in a country where the government didn't want them. But let's see how it plays out over a year, or 18 months."

In Congress, Mr. Clinton has at least temporarily muted much of the carping and bought himself time to pursue what he called yesterday the "other important business" he'd like to complete before Congress adjourns.

Health care reform, which had been the legislative centerpiece of the Clinton presidency, is "deader than Elvis," thanks to opposition unrelated to the Haiti controversy, Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican observed yesterday. Mr. Clinton failed to list it yesterday among his top goals for the year.

And the chances seem to have improved that Congress can now complete work on the other items on the Clinton agenda, including the president's new top priority: ratification of the world trade treaty known as GATT.

"The immediate prospect for dealing with additional legislation has improved," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, a Washington Democrat. "I think that the session can still produce some extremely important, constructive legislation."

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