Greatest danger to Clinton is voters tuning him out


WASHINGTON -- There was no mystery about the White House strategy in scheduling President Clinton for a prime-time news conference the other night. The goal clearly was to demonstrate that the world of American politics doesn't begin and end with Newt Gingrich.

Thus, at the outset the president reminded everyone -- accurately enough -- that he had been out front all along on the issue of welfare reform. It was the one issue that candidate Clinton used most often in 1992 to define himself as a "different kind of Democrat."

And, his ear obviously tuned to the election results of last Nov. 8, the president promised not to play "politics as usual" in dealing with Congress and insisted he didn't want to hand down "a pile of vetoes" that would stall the whole process.

But the most noteworthy moment of the news conference was Clinton's declaration of his own credentials to play the game.

"The Constitution gives me relevance," he said. "The power of our ideas gives me relevance. The record we have built up over the last two years and the things we're trying to do to implement it give me relevance."

It was, by any criterion, a remarkable spectacle -- a president of the United States defending his own "relevance" to the process of governing in Washington. That Clinton felt obliged to do so speaks volumes about his position as he confronts months of hard bargaining with the Republicans in Congress and an election campaign.

As a practical matter, the president is operating with some serious handicaps. The Democratic Party has been demoralized by the 1994 election results and the evidence of voter hostility toward the president as well as the party -- to the point that there is no inclination on the part of these Democrats to defend or champion Bill Clinton.

Secondly, there are some signs that suggest that the electorate has simply tuned out the president. In fact, Clinton has a record on the economy that should make him formidable politically. But opinion polls continue to show that most Americans believe the country is "off on the wrong track" rather than "headed in the right direction."

What this suggests is that the president is being given little if any credit for his achievements and, beyond that, that he is unable to use the fabled bully pulpit to assert his claims. Again, the evidence lies in the polls. Even when Clinton has been through a good patch, his mediocre-to-poor performance ratings remain essentially unchanged.

This has happened to other presidents. It happened to Jimmy Carter sometime in 1979; the voters decided they knew all they needed to know and began to write him off. It happened to George Bush in the summer of 1992; voters simply gave up on the possibility that he would deal effectively with the economic concerns with which they were preoccupied.

There is a special irony in Clinton's difficulty in trying to control the agenda these days. During the first two years of his presidency, the complaint about him from political professionals was that he was being overexposed. He seemed to be constantly on television, talking endlessly about every subject under the sun.

So the White House adopted a more disciplined approach designed to force the press and voters to concentrate on its message of the moment. Clinton showed evidence of that new discipline during his news conference the other night, when he made welfare reform his focus. He avoided long rambling answers. He resisted the temptation to present all sides of every argument and then try to reconcile them, his predilection in the past.

But two of the three major television networks refused to carry the news conference and relied instead on summarizing what he had to say in regular news reports. And, unhappily for Clinton, the most newsworthy statement was probably that bizarre defense of his own political relevance.

None of this suggests that Clinton's situation is irreparable. There unquestionably will be issues on which he can demonstrate his strengths in a way that will capture public attention. The Republicans in Congress may overplay their hands. The Republican nominee to run against Clinton may prove less attractive in fact than he may appear now in prospect.

In short, there is a long way to go. But the first imperative for the president is to persuade voters who may have tuned him out to pay some attention.

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