Posted on January 27, 1997 in Washington Watch
With the inauguration over, President Clinton begins his second term facing the final challenge of his career in public service. Since Clinton can not, by law, run for a third term, the next four years will define how his presidency will be remembered in history.
In recent decades, most U.S. Presidents have fared poorly in their second terms. Even the immensely popular Ronald Reagan was plagued, in his second term, by debilitating scandals and confrontation with a resurgent Democratic Congress.
Clinton faces even greater difficulties. Although Republicans lost some seats in the House of Representatives, they maintain a majority. In the Senate the Republican majority has grown and is even more conservative than it was during the past two years.
While this President’s public approval ratings are now at an all-time high (he is now viewed favorably by over 60% of all Americans) public cynicism about government and alienation from politics is also at an all-time high.
Looming large on the political horizon are a number of potentially explosive investigations that may prove distracting to the White House during the next four years. The outcome of the special investigations of the Whitewater controversy, the White House’s alleged use of FBI files of former Republican employees, and the fundraising improprieties attributed to the White House and the Democratic Party all hang like dark clouds over the White House.
A final complicating factor facing the President’s second term is a deeply troubling philosophical debate that impacts every aspect of public life. The complications of the post-Cold War world have brought forth troubling and unanswered questions. What is the role of America in the world? What is the role of government in society? How does America celebrate its openness to diversity while maintaining its source of national unity? And how, in an era of dramatic technological and demographic change, do Americans resolve their economic and social insecurities and maintain their traditional values.
The President used his inaugural address last week to confront these concerns and set the stage for how he intends to approach his next four years in office.
His inaugural address was an effort to define the themes of his presidency. He opened by teaching America’s history through its successive epochs. It was a hopeful and uplifting portrait of the nation’s past and concluded with an optimism about America’s readiness to confront its future. The President began with the 18th century that saw America born “out of the bold conviction that we are all created equal,” and then proceeded to the 19th century in which the U.S. fought a civil war to preserve the unity of the country and abolish slavery. During that century the U.S. also expanded from coast to coast.
During the 20th century the President noted America harnessed the industrial revolution, spread equality, built a “great middle class,” expanded educational opportunity, and became the mightiest nation on earth.
And now, the President concluded, America approaches a new century facing new challenges and new opportunities.
Instead of laying out specific programs (these he will develop in his February “State of the Union Address”) the President used his Inaugural speech to project an optimistic message of how Americans, based on their values and their history, can rise to meet the challenges of the next century.
He called on Americans to reaffirm first and foremost that government can play a positive and creative role in providing opportunity to its citizens. At the same time the President challenged Americans to assume greater responsibility for their own lives, their families, and their communities.
Despite budgetary constraints, the President projected a role for government in providing universal educational opportunity so that more Americans could productively enter the “information age” and find meaningful work opportunities in the post-industrial world.
Recognizing the historic challenge ahead, the President appealed to his own party and to the Republican opposition to recognize the need to work together to put aside “the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship.”
Realizing the limits imposed on his second term as a result of Republican control of Congress and a cynical press and public, the President knows that he must establish a new model for Presidential leadership.
In this new model the President will make use of his position to inspire confidence among the American people, to teach new ideas that present creative solutions to the nation’s problems, to reconcile differences between the extremes in the political debate and to use the executive authority of the presidency to launch new policy initiatives (especially in the area of foreign affairs).
In an appearance before the Democratic Party leadership on the day after the inauguration, the President gave a taste of this new approach. First he announced unilateral reforms that he would impose on fundraising practices. Although not law, since legislating campaign finance reform will be difficult given the differences that exists in the Congress, the President’s voluntary reforms indicate his commitment to meet these challenges—and while differences remain with respect to some aspects of his reforms, he appears willing to discuss his proposals.
Secondly, the President implored his party to end the partisan attacks on the personality and character of the Republican leadership. While cynics can criticize the Presidents appeal as an effort to stave off attacks on his own character, no one can argue with his point, that those personal attacks serve only to distract attention from the substantive issues that must be addressed in the next Congress.
Next the President attempted to unite the party faithful in a new way of thinking that is neither traditional liberalism or conservatism. His search for a new paradigm in political thought is a clear effort to bridge the differences between the parties and solve problems. As he noted, the critical issues facing the country can not be solved by an “either-or,” approach. For example, he noted, it is possible to both balance the budget and provide necessary funding to improve educational opportunities.
Finally, the President sought to explain the essence of what his presidency has accomplished to date so as to personally define his “legacy” for history.
To spread a message of hope, to provide creative solutions, to develop a cooperative relationship with Congress, and establish a legacy that will live in history, all the while facing enormous and potentially explosive problems is the ambitious task set forth by Bill Clinton as he embarks on his second term.
The next year will be critical, because by 1998 the country will once again be engaging in divisive election year politics and soon then after on the start-up of the presidential elections for the year 2000.
In a real sense, the outcome of the President’s four years record will be determined by his ability to set his course during the next twelve months.
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