Clinton's biggest problem? Nobody knows who he is ON THE POLITICAL SCENE


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton made a campaign swing to Illinois a few days ago and another this weekend to Ohio. Early next week it will be California. He is, in short, doing what presidents in political trouble always do -- taking his "message" beyond the Beltway "directly to the people."

It is a conventional and time-honored strategy. The theory of White House strategists, whoever the president happens to be, is that the more direct and local exposure of the president -- without the "filter" of the cranky news media based in Washington -- will persuade more voters that he is a splendid fellow who cares about people like them and has just proven it by flying all the way to Cleveland.

In this case, the plan is to sell Clinton's "middle-class bill of rights" as something more than a gimmick in a bidding war with Republicans on tax reduction.

Then, the theory goes, the president's severely depressed poll ratings will improve, he will gain more credibility within his own party, and, finally, he will acquire some political muscle to use against the Republicans, win re-election in 1996 and live happily ever after.

There may have been a time when such an approach worked for some embattled president, but we cannot recall one in the age of television. And in Clinton's case it is obvious that this rush to confront the voters misses the point entirely.

To begin with, Clinton's problem is not that he has failed to reach voters.

On the contrary, most political professionals believe he has been too ubiquitous on their television screens throughout his first two years in office.

The only thing different about these trips is the attention he earns on local television news programs in Chicago or Cleveland or Los Angeles as well as the networks.

So the problem is not, as the White House insists, that the message isn't getting "out there" to those House Speaker Newt Gingrich calls "normal Americans."

The problem is that they don't buy the message they are getting -- nor the messenger himself. And it is far-fetched to imagine they will become more susceptible to his charms simply because he has come to call in their hometowns.

The strategy didn't work for Lyndon Johnson once the country turned against him on the war in Vietnam; on the contrary, he finally had to limit his travels to visits to military bases.

Richard Nixon was in such bad odor from Watergate that he felt his only option was to travel abroad. And the voters were almost equally resistant to the importuning of Jimmy Carter and George Bush once their political stock declined late in their first and only terms.

Clinton's weakness with the electorate has nothing to do with contact or lack of contact with the voters but everything to do with his personal image.

The voters give him little credit for his accomplishments. They see him as too political. They think he changes his mind too often. They don't know what his core values may be. Justified or not, these are reservations that are not going to be dissolved by assuring local audiences of his good intentions.

The operative question, of course, is what alternatives the president may have in trying to resurrect himself for the 1996 election campaign that is already under way.

The one thing that seems most obvious is that positioning himself by "moving to the center" or "moving to the right" in some deliberate way, as he has been advised to do by his old friends in the Democratic Leadership Council, isn't the answer because it is so transparently political.

Indeed, what Clinton most clearly needs -- and cannot contrive -- is some situation or issue that forces him to take a strong position and, in turn, forces voters to take a different look at their president.

It is here that he may get some help from the Republicans now in control of both houses of Congress if they choose to carry their mandate for change too far. But that isn't going to happen if he continues to respond to the new political realities as he has since Nov. 8 -- that is, largely by acquiescing and trying to please the opposition.

And he isn't going to salvage his presidency by --ing around the country to staged media events.

The voters already know what he looks like. He's been on their television screens for most of the last three years. They want to know who he is.

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