Clinton's running against time in quest to build a meaningful legacy

December 19, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's marathon year-end news conference revealed more than anything else a man irked by kibitzers who say he has shifted into low gear for his second four years, and determined to prove otherwise in the year ahead.

His stout defense of his record in the first year of his lame-duck term -- a balanced budget agreement with the Republican-controlled Congress, new tax credits for college students, a chemical weapons treaty ratification, progress toward NATO expansion, a more open national dialogue on race -- clearly was designed to refute the allegations that, as his old political guru Dick Morris has put it, he is sleeping through the second term.

A lively '98

Mr. Clinton's promise that ''in '98 it will be a more vigorous year'' was accompanied by a more long-range agenda. ''From education to the environment, from health care to child care, from expanding trade to improving skills, from fighting new security threats to promoting peace,'' he insisted, ''we have much to do both here and abroad.''

He also promised ''to deal with the entitlements challenge . . . to honor the good that has been done by Social Security and Medicare for retirees . . . and do it in a way that doesn't bankrupt their children when we baby boomers retire.'' This latter pledge, if fulfilled, probably would do more to win high marks for Mr. Clinton in the history books than any other undertaking.

This president, however, doesn't have the best record for taking on the really hard challenges. An exception was his first-term effort to achieve a wholesale revamping of the nation's health-care system, including universal health insurance coverage, and that one failed. A key reason: He bit off so much that he left himself vulnerable to conservative and insurance industry charges that he was just another big-spending liberal.

Constitutional relevancy

Those allegations no doubt played a role in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and only six months later Mr. Clinton found it necessary in a news conference to argue that he was still relevant. ''The Constitution gives me relevance,'' he said then, ''the power of our ideas gives me relevance,'' and the question was whether the Republicans would work with him, which at that juncture they showed little inclination to do.

The experience of Mr. Clinton's health-care reform defeat obviously was a searing one, backing him off any similar %J grandiose scheme in favor of an incremental approach that has achieved some success in extending insurance coverage to many previously uninsured Americans.

While many liberal Democrats are critical of what to them seems Mr. Clinton's timidity on dealing with issues they believe demand bolder presidential action, his self-positioning as a centrist has proved to be an extremely effective one politically.

All the speculation on what Mr. Clinton's legacy will be remains subject to the challenges that circumstances serve up to him, and those he initiates. In his first five years, relative peace and prosperity have deprived him of the kinds of crises that make presidents historic figures.

He may yet face one, but absent that sort of confrontation, in foreign policy or in dealing with a crumbling economy or intensified social unrest at home, Mr. Clinton will be hard-pressed to reach that stature by incremental progress on national problems.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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