With eye to future, White House balances Kosovo, domestic policy

Clinton seeks to avoid appearance of becoming swamped by foreign crisis

May 05, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Diplomatic efforts had attained a new sense of urgency yesterday. The air war over Yugoslavia had been pounding military targets with increasing success. And within hours, President Clinton was to fly to Brussels, Belgium, for high-stakes talks with NATO leaders.

But first, there was other business to attend to: condolences for the victims of the Midwestern tornadoes and the rollout of broad legislation to protect consumers from banks, securities firms and insurers that are selling private information about their customers to the highest bidder.

Though seemingly unrelated, yesterday's hurried events showed how resolutely the White House is working to keep the president attuned to his popular domestic agenda and not become consumed by Kosovo.

A delicate balance

It is a delicate balancing act. But Clinton administration officials are determined not to sink into the trap that they believe Presidents George Bush and Jimmy Carter slipped into: presidents who appeared to the American public as if a foreign policy crisis were all they really cared about.

Top White House officials acknowledge that the air war over Yugoslavia is likely to become the most pivotal event in Clinton's final two years in office, a way to either burnish the image of a scandal-tarred president or sink him further into historical disrepute. A victory in NATO's first war could leave the alliance stronger and more aggressive, with a new sense of purpose in the post-Cold War era and with the United States more firmly at the helm.

But White House aides do not want Clinton's present popularity -- and the prospects of an Al Gore presidency -- to rest on an uncertain success in Kosovo.

"Kosovo takes a lot of oxygen out of the system," said a senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's important to show it's not sucking out all the oxygen."

Domestic proposals

The consumer protection rollout yesterday was only the most recent. On Saturday, Clinton laid out new environmental standards for sport-utility vehicles. On Friday, he set a date for a White House summit on youth violence.

On April 27, it was an ambitious package of gun-control proposals. And the Tuesday before that, the president proposed complex new measures to cushion shocks to world financial markets.

The proposals have been carefully spaced to derive maximum press coverage at a time when the news media were preoccupied with the conflict in Kosovo. A Senate Democratic leadership aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said White House officials contacted Senate allies Friday to announce that there would be some event on Tuesday. They just were not sure what it would be.

That scattershot, fill-in-the-blanks planning has marked White House efforts since the bombing began March 24. For instance, the White House had been working on the package of gun control measures for months but had put them on hold and had instead planned to roll out education reform initiatives last week.

But the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado scrambled those plans, pushing the education event off the immediate agenda in favor of a gun control proposal sure to attract the public's attention, a senior White House aide said.

Likewise, White House aides had delayed for weeks a presidential event disclosing the long-awaited details of a proposed tax-credit plan designed to increase personal retirement savings. They had hoped for a break in the action over Kosovo. But when one failed to materialize, they went ahead with the event on April 13.

Even yesterday's event was a rush. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, phoned Monday to ask the president to put off the consumer protection event. Sarbanes feared it would overshadow the Senate Democrats' own financial services event, which called on Republicans to preserve regulations requiring banks to invest in underserved communities.

But White House aides refused. Yesterday afternoon was the one opportunity they had for a domestic event before Clinton took off for Belgium and Germany.

"One of our strengths is we're able to turn on a dime," another Clinton administration official said. "It's important to stay focused on domestic issues. It's what saved us last year," when Washington was consumed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Foreign crises

Military and diplomatic conflicts have often been treacherous for presidents. Voters often rally around the commander in chief in the short run, only to turn on him in frustration if the crisis drags on, said David Kozak, a public policy professor and presidential scholar at Gannon University in Erie, Pa.

"Foreign policy crises distract presidents," Kozak said. "By their nature, it becomes a consuming event."

Carter was consumed by the Iranian hostage crisis and was ultimately rejected in 1980 by voters who viewed him as ineffectual.

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