Clinton enters new year on upswing President recovered well in 1995 from a disastrous 1994

January 01, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton ended the old year without a federal budget in hand, but he is still humming an upbeat riff as he swings into 1996, a year shaping up as a national referendum on his presidency -- and him personally.

If public opinion polls are to be believed, the man who once dubbed himself "The Comeback Kid" rebounded from a disastrous 1994 to have a reasonably successful 1995. His approval rating, once as low as 40 percent, ranged into the high 50s.

Fueling this surge were Mr. Clinton's rhetoric -- Republicans call it demagogy -- in defense of programs such as Medicare and Medicaid targeted by Republican budget cutters.

He has also prospered to a degree by the traditional rallying around the commander in chief when American soldiers are put in harm's way, this time in Bosnia.

"Clearly, he's in a much stronger position politically at the end of the year than he was at the beginning," said Carter administration official Les Francis. "The Republicans overplayed their hand on the budget. And the president established more credibility in foreign policy. Bosnia is dicey, but it showed a degree of confidence that wasn't there a year ago, the Mideast process is on track and he was greeted as a conquering hero in Ireland."

Similar assessments were rendered by Republicans.

"I think he's in fine shape," said Bruce R. Boyer, a grass-roots conservative from Orlando, Fla. "His position on Bosnia makes him look presidential."

"I'm sure the president has had a much more joyful experience this New Year's than last," added L. Brent Bozell III, another Republican activist. "But he's not out of the woods yet. There are still unresolved personal scandals, unresolved political problems and a very, very volatile electorate."

Political observers acknowledge, though, that a year-end snapshot often provides an incomplete picture.

Republicans mentioned the simmering Whitewater scandal as something that could reverse Mr. Clinton's fortunes. Even his supporters concede that it is too early to know how Bosnia, for instance, will turn out for Mr. Clinton, the troops he sent there or the Bosnians.

"The Clinton White House has just unpacked the favorite tools by which the Democratic Party has dug its own grave several times this century," warned political commentator Kevin Phillips. "The last three Democratic presidents managed to have [an] unpopular overseas military involvement handicapping them the year they were trying to get re-elected."

Long way to November

Ten months from Election Day, Mr. Clinton's success on domestic policy is up in the air as well.

Although the public has blamed Congress more than the president for the government shutdown, 92 days into the current fiscal year, half the government agencies over which Mr. Clinton presides were without operating money. Even loyal Democrats fret that when the public finally gets steamed about this, Mr. Clinton will shoulder much of the blame.

Some liberals urged Mr. Clinton not to sign a budget at all, but to fight out the spending issue with Republicans in November.

Others saw the prospect of Mr. Clinton signing a balanced budget agreement in the East Room as a win-win situation: Good for the economy and for the president.

"The longer this impasse goes, the weaker Clinton's position becomes," said longtime Democratic Party activist Robert A. Neuman. "He's the president; people look to him to make things work."

This sentiment was echoed by Eddie Mahe, an influential Republican political consultant.

"He'd be an absolute star if he [signed] a balanced budget agreement," Mr. Mahe said. "But if they really want to go into 1996 defending all the programs of the New Deal and the Great Society -- fantastic! Let's get at it."

"Polls go up, polls go down," President George Bush's spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, once noted in an observation that Mr. Clinton might appreciate. Mr. Clinton was the only prominent Democrat who took up the challenge of running for the presidency when Mr. Bush was riding the crest of an 89 percent approval wave.

But Mr. Clinton appears mesmerized by his own pollsters.

"It would be hard not to be. Every time he goes out and bashes Republicans on Medicare, he goes up a few blips in the polls," said Democratic campaign consultant Jim Duffy. "But it's a long way until November."

White House press secretary Mike McCurry says Mr. Clinton is well aware of that. He also conceded that criticizing Republicans would not be enough -- that elections are referendums on what incumbent president's stand for, not against.

"We opened some ears in 1995 to the revolutionary views of the Republicans," he said. "Now the president has to present a positive vision of how he'd change the federal government and the whole way of doing business in Washington."

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