All Bill Clinton is now is president: The time has come for him to act like it National Dad abandons his children

March 14, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- At first the newspaper ad barely registers. I am so immune to the endless presidential campaign that it passes across my line of vision like a subliminal political message. There is the full-page photo of Bill crossing the White House lawn with Hillary and Chelsea, saying that the ''toughest job in the world isn't being president. It's being a parent.''

What is this, another Dick Morris Moment in the creation of the Papa Presidency? Yet another message for the soccer moms?

Then a variation on this ad campaign appears on television. Once again he talks about trying to meet the daily challenges of the world's toughest job worrying that ''If I fail, the consequences could be serious.'' Once again the coy twist: ''That job isn't being president. It's being a parent.''

Finally it comes to me that this is 1997, the campaign is over. Yet the man in the Oval Office is still playing Papa Bear -- this time for a public-service campaign.

Now, I have no beef with that campaign -- or, surely -- with the sponsors, an alliance of children's organizations seeking volunteers. But after too many ads and too many images, I have used up my patience with this Father Figure.

I don't doubt or discount Bill Clinton's success as a parent. But history will not judge his administration by the fate of one child.

Long after the first daughter has gone to college, he will be held accountable for the future of the most vulnerable of American children. The Clinton-era policy that will affect the most lives has nothing to do with curfews or school uniforms. It goes by the moniker of ''welfare reform.'' But maybe it should be known by the more damning title of Peter Edelman's article in the current Atlantic Monthly: ''The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done.''

Last September, Mr. Edelman, an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services and certified FOB, walked out of the administration as a protest against welfare ''repeal.'' Then, like many others, he said little more during the campaign because, ''Bob Dole would certainly have been worse.''

But now in spare prose and unsparing detail, Mr. Edelman describes how a dreadful welfare program was transformed into a worse ''reform.'' Why it is a catastrophe in the making.

President Clinton signed onto a bill, writes Mr. Edelman, even though it is likely to move a million more children into poverty. Even though some 8 million families with children, many working poor with food stamps, will lose an average of some $1,300 apiece.

With protest, this Father Figure signed a bill that camouflaged budget cuts as ''welfare reforms,'' eliminating programs for immigrants and for food-stamp recipients -- ''the safety net under the safety net.'' But he made no protest at all about the bill's central provision that eliminated entitlement and turned welfare money over to the states to do with as they will. And, inevitably, that will mean less money to do less with.

Mr. Edelman walks through the ''reform: '' A two-year time limit that pays no mind to the job market. A lifetime limit of five years of benefits no matter the economy. An exception for 20 percent of the recipients and never mind that 30 percent are disabled or caring for the disabled.

American Calcutta

''The big hit, which could be very big,'' he warns, ''will come when the time limits go into effect -- in five years or less if the state so chooses -- or when a recession hits. Calcutta will not break out instantly on American streets.'' It will come gradually, in increased homelessness, malnutrition, drug abuse, violence. In short, ''There will be suffering.''

In Washington these days President Clinton is tarnished by campaign-finance and Lincoln Bedroom farces. We are told that the election of '94 sent him into a panic about '96. But ''The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done'' in that panic wasn't raising funds, but caving to this GOP reform scam. That is the true scandal.

And now, how much of the president's fabled capital has he used to fix even the ''serious flaws'' he himself lamented -- in immigrant benefits and food stamps? Does anyone believe that his recent call to hire welfare recipients will produce 2 million jobs? Or merely pit working poor and welfare poor against each other?

Ronald Reagan campaigned against government spending and left a crushing national debt as his legacy. Now we have a man who campaigned as National Dad. Yet his legacy may well be the abandonment of the poorest children. As the man in the ad says, ''the consequences could be serious.''

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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