Presidential record: jobs, peace, scandal Campaign: As the Democratic National Convention unfolds this week in Chicago, history suggests that the most significant part of the campaign is behind the president: his record.

Campaign 1996

August 25, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHICAGO -- When President Clinton and his fellow Democrats address their convention this week, their case for four more years of a Clinton presidency will be built on a list of accomplishments ranging from 10 million new American jobs to the calming presence of U.S. troops the president dispatched to Bosnia.

Americans watching will recall setbacks as well. Even the most loyal White House staffer concedes that the past 3 1/2 years have been a roller-coaster ride for the president.

Bill Clinton is an activist president. He has sought a grand federal role in national problems as intractable as fighting crime, improving education and trying to ensure that every American has health insurance. At the same time, he has declared that "the era of big government is over."

He is also a scandal-ridden president whose administration is being investigated by special prosecutors, one of whom is closely looking at the activities of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The president has testified in two criminal trials, been sued for sexual harassment and seen one close friend who served in his administration go to prison.

And he is a talkative president. Clinton uses his uncommon gift for gab and the platform of the Oval Office to be the conductor for a great, diffuse and sometimes discordant national dialogue on everything from the effects of racism on the black community to the role of television.

In San Diego, Republican speakers insisted that Clinton has diminished the presidency. To his staff and to those loyal to him he seems larger than life. Clinton himself has said that he realizes he is a polarizing figure -- that people seem to love him or hate him.

Republican nominee Bob Dole vowed in his San Diego acceptance address that he is someone who can be trusted. Ross Perot stressed that he and his Reform Party are incorruptible.

But a presidential election is, first of all, a referendum on the incumbent. And for all the "talking points" and attack ads and debates, history suggests that the most significant events in the campaign have already happened. They constitute Clinton's record as president.

Different impressions

Clinton began with a flurry of activity.

On Veterans Day 1992, President-elect Clinton announced he would lift the ban against gays in the military. He had publicly made the promise to gay audiences in California during the campaign, but it was news to most Americans.

In January 1993, on his third day in office, Clinton signed five executive orders wiping out most of the restrictions on abortion and family planning imposed by previous Republican presidents. These included the "gag rule" forbidding workers at federally funded clinics to discuss abortion with pregnant women, a ban on fetal tissue research, and prohibitions against military personnel and their dependents receiving abortions at overseas military hospitals.

In the first week of February, Clinton signed his first law, a provision requiring family leave for the birth of a child, an adoption or care for a sick parent or child.

They are different issues, but together they left a disquieting impression with many voters. Clinton had campaigned for president as a moderate who promised to be a "new kind of Democrat." But his first actions in office made him appear to be a traditional liberal.

Republicans will attempt to exploit this impression during the next 10 weeks. "He talks right and acts left," says GOP Chairman Haley Barbour.

But scholars who study legislative achievements cite the domestic policy initiatives that became law: the crime bill, a welfare reform bill, the North American Free Trade agreement, and they don't see a liberal stamp.

"If you look, not at his agenda, but at his accomplishments, you see that they are in the areas of crime control, deficit reduction, free trade, welfare reform and some deregulation," said Yale political scientist David R. Mayhew. "That's not a Democratic program, largely."

Mayhew is the author of "Divided Government," a study of the record of presidents going back to Harry S. Truman. He acknowledges that many of Clinton's impulses were stymied by Congress -- but says this is a frequent occurrence.

Fred Greenstein, a Princeton professor whose specialty is presidential leadership, believes that "the Clinton record looks pretty standard." Most presidents are able to achieve only "incremental expansions on existing policies," he says, and points out that Clinton followed two Republicans.

Swing voters who decide national elections, however, will look less at Clinton's evolving legacy and more at the issues that traditionally determine how a sitting president is viewed.

Those include the performance of the economy, his conduct of foreign policy, whether he is perceived as a leader and how he uses the Oval Office to communicate with the American public.

The economy

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