"You have to communicate effectively, and . . . it is not terribly complicated," said Michael McCurry, the White House press secretary. "It's important to be very focused on what you say, and maybe sometimes we've tried to cover the gamut. We've had so many exciting things to talk about in the first two years that sometimes you, you know, maybe get lost in the forest when you're trying to talk about all the individual trees."
But even as they profess the necessity of communicating a slimmed-down, digestible message -- that the president has helped the economy -- Mr. Clinton and his strategists can't quite help themselves.
On Thursday, the White House press office issued a 37-page booklet, complete with charts, graphs and accompanying newspaper articles, purporting to show that the president had kept a remarkable number of his 1992 campaign promises.
"You're accusing us of bragging, I see," a smiling Mr. McCurry told reporters. "Well, that is fair. But sometimes you need to be able to lay out the case, tell the people what record you've established . . . tell that news over and over again."
But the sheer volume of the packet demonstrates how difficult it is for this administration to focus on just one or two issues at a time. The booklet also contains some rather dubious entries.
The mere introduction of the president's health care legislation, which petered out at the end of the last Congress, is listed as an accomplishment. So is the holding of a symposium on Africa.
But at least the president did those things. Another entry states that the president "fought for" campaign finance reform.
Actually, Mr. Clinton was picketed by a friendly and liberal grass-roots organization precisely because he didn't fight for campaign finance reform.
Instead, said Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, Mr. Clinton gave tacit approval to House Democrats to stall the bill at a time when he was out raising millions of dollars from special interests for the Democratic Party.
But haggling over the precise number of Mr. Clinton's accomplishments obscures a larger truth: Two years after he was elected -- in a three-way race -- with only 43 percent of the vote, Mr. Clinton still is having trouble closing the sale with a majority of Americans.
Republicans' explanation is that, although voters might think Mr. Clinton has gotten his sea legs after two years in office, they still see him as a guardian of the Democrats' liberal welfare state.
The voters "rejected Bill Clinton's policies," said the Republican Party chairman, Haley Barbour. He asserted that Americans had instead embraced the Republican agenda of lower taxes, smaller government and less spending.
The upshot is that as the president prepares for his big speech tomorrow, he faces a cocky Republican majority in Congress, a public approval rating below 50 percent -- the traditional threshold for an incumbent who wants to be re-elected -- the prospect of more Whitewater hearings and an array of politicians from both parties contemplating running against him in 1996.
But since he burst on the national scene three years ago, Bill Clinton often has persevered most when he's been on the defensive and the stakes were high. Over time, this strange sense of self-confidence in the face of apparent disaster has infected those who work for him, too.
Asked how the president could manage to revive his political prospects, Barry Toiv, a White House aide, said, "We're laying the foundation for good things to happen."