With end in sight, Clinton works on modest legacy

July 09, 1998|By David M. Shribman

WASHINGTON -- Back from China and back to work in the capital, President Clinton now enters one of the most critical passages of his two tumultuous terms.

The investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr grinds on. The defiance of the Republican Congress grows ever stronger. The midterm elections grow ever closer. His agenda grows ever smaller. His tenure at the center of our national life grows ever briefer.

Limited agenda

The president gave a political pep talk the other day, urging Congress to approve the Clinton domestic program before it adjourns for fall campaigning. But in truth, the administration's domestic menu makes for a sparse meal: Help poor, elderly and disabled Americans to pay their Medicare premiums. Finish the commitment to put 100,000 new police officers on the street. Start a drive to assure food safety. Expand federal subsidies for child care, an initiative that depended on money from the tobacco bill that died in the Senate last month.

Despite a triumphal tour of China, the last few years of Mr. Clinton's administration are turning out to be no victory lap. In fact, this most unconventional of presidents, wrapping up the most unconventional of presidencies, seems to be slipping into a decidedly conventional conclusion of his time in office.

In the end -- indeed, in the very way he ends his presidency -- Mr. Clinton has fallen into a traditional presidential pattern. Like Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, the only other two-term presidents since World War II, he has modest hopes -- and modest prospects of success.

"An examination of the records of those presidents who have served eight years will disclose that in almost every instance the latter parts of their terms have shown very little in the way of constructive accomplishment," said Calvin Coolidge, who, famously, did not choose to run for a second full term in 1928. "They have often been clouded with grave disappointment."

No second term is easy. Eisenhower had to suffer through the humiliation of Sputnik, the Soviets' satellite that opened the space age, and the shooting down of a U-2 surveillance plane, which prompted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to break off a summit meeting. Nixon faced economic problems and finally left office in disgrace after Watergate. Mr. Reagan won a major overhaul of the tax system, but his final years were consumed with the investigation of the Iran-contra affair.

Mr. Clinton enters the twilight of his presidency substantially weakened to begin with. Though his public-approval ratings remain high, the Starr investigation has siphoned much of the juice from the Clinton presidency. And like Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan, he confronts a Congress controlled by the opposition party.

The result is a diminished presidency. "That's the case when a president has very little in the way to work with," says George C. Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A & M University. "He doesn't have votes in Congress, the most important political capital. He doesn't have any money, so he can't introduce new initiatives. And he seems to have made a decision to forget about big change and take on small change."

The White House is in the bittersweet position of arguing that there isn't much to do because . . . there isn't much to do. Things are going well: The stock market defies expectations and reason. Real wages rose last year for the first time since 1973.

Last year the president circulated an internal document, listing 14 "pillars," or goals, for a second term. Key White House aides were allowed to read the memorandum but not to keep it. Some of the items were so small that some top officials don't even remember what was on the list.

No big spenders

In any case, there's very little room in the current political climate for the sort of domestic spending programs that Democratic presidents have long favored. If Mr. Clinton's opportunity for NTC leaving a mark is diminished, it is in part because he helped diminish the potential for federal initiatives.

"A few years ago, politicians got elected by promising they'll vote against all tax increases, but now people are saying they not only won't raise your taxes, they'll cut them," says Charles S. Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist. "If this view is a seller in 1998 and 2000, it means the government will continue to operate with the constraints on."

That could be Mr. Clinton's greatest legacy. But it isn't the one he set out to build. As a result, Mr. Clinton has more in common with Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan than he ever would have imagined -- or aspired to. He's the apostle of a smaller government, and the power is passing from his hand with each passing day.

David Shribman is Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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