Clinton shapes his legacy

July 09, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Skeptics may be forgiven if they wonder about President Clinton's motives in his current tour of some of the nation's most poverty-stricken communities.

If he is concerned about his legacy -- and those who know him say he is -- then it cannot hurt to be seen showing concern for the deprived in Appalachia, Watts or the Mississippi Delta.

But, whatever the reason, the president is using the bully pulpit of the White House to perform a worthwhile service for Americans by calling their attention to the fact that not everyone is sharing in the extraordinary economic boom.

Mr. Clinton also is performing a service, perhaps belatedly, for the Democratic Party in reminding voters that there is supposed to be some special relationship between Democrats and the disadvantaged. Given the way the administration has been crowding over toward the center for the past six years, that relationship has seemed distant indeed.

The political potential in the Clinton initiative was evident in the way the Republicans who control Congress reacted. As Mr. Clinton left the capital for a six-state tour, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert urged him to support a Republican tax bill that would offer economic incentives for investment in impoverished areas.

Mr. Clinton is offering similar legislative proposals to attract money to Appalachia, Indian reservations and poor inner-city and rural areas -- the sections of America where the Dow's setting records is not a story with much direct relevance. What the president is not doing, however, is offering some reinvention of the Great Society.

The amounts of money and the size of the dimensions of the tax breaks are too modest to invite criticism, but they also may be too small to have any practical effect.

But the Clinton initiative is a reminder of how the bully pulpit can be exploited in the final years of a second term. There is no need for Mr. Clinton, for example, to find some latter-day equivalent of the welfare reform he embraced shortly before the 1996 election.

But it is also a reminder of how restrained he has been in spending whatever prestige he still enjoys on significant issues. What stands out, of course, is Mr. Clinton's failure to take the lead in trying to achieve fundamental and permanent reforms of both the Social Security and Medicare programs, perhaps the single most vexing problem facing the nation these days and one of incendiary political qualities.

This is, of course, a special case of a lame duck president. Mr. Clinton does not have great vaults of political capital to spend. His handling of the Lewinsky episode has left him with few friends even in his own party. And opinion polls show that although he still enjoys high ratings for his performance in office, most Americans think poorly of him personally.

Liberal Democrats are obviously suspicious. Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, who made a tour of poverty areas himself two years ago, suggested to reporters the other day that there was the risk of "doing symbolic politics or photo-op politics" in such visits.

In fact, as is always the case with Mr. Clinton, there is probably a mix of substance and politics in his motivation. Long before he was president, Mr. Clinton demonstrated a genuine concern with the problems of the economic underclass, so there is no reason to question his sincerity today.

But history inevitably will remember Mr. Clinton first for the Lewinsky episode and the impeachment trial in the Senate.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 7/09/99

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