Economic slowdown poses biggest threat to Clinton

June 10, 1995|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Presidents and their political advisers often complain about how they are compromised by issues that could not be anticipated and by problems that may be beyond their control.

There are many examples. President Carter's re-election campaign in 1980 clearly was itself held hostage by the hostage crisis in Iran that began in November of 1979.

Now President Clinton is facing two similarly threatening if less spectacular situations as he begins his campaign for a second term. The immediate problem is the war in Bosnia. The more long-range -- and perhaps most menacing -- threat lies in the figures that continue to show a slowdown in the economy.

But politicians must play the cards they are dealt. So the operative question is whether Clinton can deal with such threats to his political health in a way to, at the least, neutralize the damage.

The situation in Bosnia is particularly vexing for the White House because there is no politically popular solution. The president is discovering, as Republican George Bush did before him, that there is no market in the American electorate for becoming deeply involved in the strife in the former Yugoslavia.

Indeed, it is an article of faith among political strategists these days that the voters are isolationist enough that they resent anything they see as a diversion of American resources abroad. Any action resulting in substantial casualties, the conventional wisdom holds, would be a political disaster for the president.

The best evidence of the thesis that Americans are turned inward may be the political history of the war against Iraq in 1991. Bush's essentially unqualified success there gave him approval ratings in the 80 percent to 90 percent range that dissolved within months after the fighting ended, and Americans turned back to their concern with their jobs.

But even if there is little hope of making a positive out of Bosnia, Clinton needs to handle the situation in a way that gives voters a basic level of confidence in his stewardship of foreign policy.

That has not been the case up to this point, as the bipartisan sniping at Clinton in the Congress has demonstrated. Indeed, the administration has not yet fully explained the conditions under which American ground troops would be used in Bosnia. Would it be only to cover a withdrawal by United Nations forces? Or could it be done if they needed to improve their positions?

The critical need for the president is to provide what politicians call a "comfort level" for voters on national security questions. Jimmy Carter had not managed that by 1980, so the hostage crisis in Tehran crystallized all the doubts about his competence and strength. It may have been unfair, considering that the hostages all emerged alive eventually, but for Carter it was no less devastating.

By contrast, less than three years later, President Reagan escaped politically unscathed from the disastrous bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. He had enough credibility so that the voters believed him when he attacked Grenada as a way of turning attention from the failure in Lebanon.

The threat posed by a slowdown in the economy is even more formidable for Clinton. He was elected, after all, largely because voters believed Bush had not come to grips with problems in the economy and had no intention of doing so.

Moreover, even a president hamstrung by poor choices on foreign policy will be expected to react effectively to threats to jobs and economic health. And that is the case even when the options available to the administration are limited.

For Clinton, however, the choices are even more restricted. The conventional medicine for an economic slowdown is pump-priming federal spending. But the priority for the government now, set by the Republicans but accepted by the Democrats as well, is to cut that spending back sharply in the name of deficit reduction.

As a practical matter, the budget plans being pursued in Congress are all backloaded -- meaning that the most stringent cuts would not be applied until the last two or three years of the seven-year target period for achieving a balanced budget. So its effects would not be felt fully until well after the 1996 election.

But if the perception of the electorate next year is that Bill Clinton is now presiding over an economic decline, he must offer a credible reassurance or face defeat. It goes with the territory.

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