Posted on March 22, 1993 in Washington Watch

While President Bill Clinton’s all-important budget proposal seems to be moving easily through the Congress, dark clouds are gathering which may foreshadow future problems for the President.

When the budget issue is the dominant policy question, as it has been for most of the past three weeks, Clinton and his team have been adept in their management of the story and shaping the press coverage. But, of course, there have been a few “little problems.”

On two occasions the Administration has been caught presenting inaccurate budget-related statistics to the press. These instances were well short of outright lying, and were really just attempts to favorably shade the truth. While not damaging in and of themselves, these incidents have strained Clinton’s credibility—and the President’s credibility in the eyes of the voters will be a crucial factor in his legislative success.

There are also a few restless members of Congress who have made news by challenging the President. A group of moderate Democrats have proposed amendments to the Administration’s new spending programs. Likewise, the Republicans have made embarked on a public relations strategy to oppose the Clinton “tax and spend” proposal.

None of these efforts will succeed.

Clinton has worked hard to win over enough votes to pass his proposal essentially intact. Further, he has enlisted the support of the Democratic leadership in the Senate and the House of representatives. Since the Democrats have a majority in both bodies, the leadership should be able to appeal successfully to party loyalty and pres its members to vote with Clinton.

But, as hard as Clinton worked to pull it off, this week’s first-round win on the budget may be the last easy battle for the new President. Even the vote in the senate on the budget issue will be a close one. And the next major legislative battle facing the Administration is its dramatic effort to reform the nation’s health care system. The storm on this issue is already brewing.

While most Democrats and many Republicans agree with Clinton that the issue of health care reform must be addressed, many Senators and Congressmen are afraid of both of the increased tax burden that any comprehensive health care reform will require, and of running afoul of the powerful medical lobbies and political action committees (PACs) that annually pour tens of millions of dollars into political campaigns.

One can reasonably expect some tension between the President’s call for reform and the survival instincts of other elected officials. The major reason, of course, is that next year—1994—is an election year. All 435 members of the Congress and 34 Senators will be up for reelection. 22 of the 34 Senators are Democrats, and nine of those 22 are extremely vulnerable to defeat. As Senator Bob Dole, a Republican leader, recently noted, “You can bet that these 22 democrats will be looking over their shoulders” on a lot of their votes.

After all, Clinton won with only 43% of the vote, meaning that most of those members of Congress polled higher than Clinton in their districts. Although his popularity has risen, and although he seems more in control these days, in the selfish real world of American politics a Senator’s or Congressman’s political survival always comes first.

This fact and these fears account for several rebuffs Clinton has already received from the Congress.

Homosexuals in the military: Many Senators were not eager to support Clinton’s campaign pledge to lift the ban which prevents homosexuals from serving the military. While the President did succeed in arranging a phased-in compromise, the issue is not yet decided. The compromise, of course, only came about because of the strong Senate opposition, and thus far very few Senators have lined up on Clinton’s side for the coming battle.

Allowing HIV-positive individuals into the U.S.: A Congressional vote actually defeated Clinton’s effort to change U.S. immigration laws to allow HIV-positive individuals into the United States. This was the first such defeat for the President at the hands of the Democratically controlled Congress.

Military base closings: There is a rising hue and cry from many states and localities that are home to military bases slated for closure by the Clinton Administration as a part of its effort to streamline the military and cut back Pentagon spending. Even members of Congress who have long supported defense cuts are protesting. In effect, they are saying, “Close some bases, but not the ones in my district.” Despite the President’s offer of a financial package to help communities make the transition from military to civilian jobs, many members of Congress fear that any loss of jobs in their district will cost them votes next November.

In addition to these signs of tension which are, at the moment, mere undercurrents due to the overwhelming nature of the budget issue, Clinton is facing other challenges that may weaken his position in the coming months.

First among these challengers is Ross Perot, billionaire independent candidate for President in 1992. Perot has not only not gone away, he has come back fighting and has recovered much of his once-faded popularity. He has been purchasing television time and appearing on television programs to recruit members for his “United We Stand, America” organization. On March 21st, for example, he will use a half hour of national television time on NBC to televised national ballot on a number of issues. Ballots have been sent to millions of people across the United States whom Perot will ask from his seat on television to vote on several key issues facing the President and Congress.

Perot’s ability to spend millions to demagogically project his populist reform agenda could dramatically challenge both the President and the Congress in the coming year. Already we have seen many leading political figures courting Perot. President Clinton, Senator Dole and many others confer with him before making major announcements—if only to avoid being caught on his bad side. The combination of Perot’s money, his ego and his agenda present a genuine potential danger to Clinton and, in a fundamental way, to the American political process.

If Perot’s ability to spend millions to create pressure weren’t bad enough, a new specter is haunting Democrats from the far right wing of American politics. Rush Limbaugh, a radio and television personality has quickly and easily become a national phenomenon—the most popular political personality on the airwaves. With a cutting wit and an extraordinarily conservative ideology he has gained more than 11 million listeners for his national shows. And his new book, “The Way Things Ought to Be”, has been sitting atop the best-seller lists for almost 30 weeks.

Limbaugh is funny, and he is dangerous to Bill Clinton. He urges his listeners to call to the White House and the Congress to protest over issues on which they disagree with the President, and his listeners call. For example, it was the flood of calls, largely generated by his shows, that is credited with the downfall of Zoe Baird, Clinton’s first choice for Attorney General. Overall, a recent audit showed that in January (when the Baird nomination and the fight over homosexuals in the military were at their peaks) the Congressional phone system logged 4.2 million calls, marking a dramatic increase over the 1.9 million calls logged during January of 1992.

One final problem that Clinton ought to be preparing to face in the near future is the gradual alienation of the White House press corps. These are the people who traditionally shape the news coverage of the President, and naturally the President and his chief aides who deal with the press tend to develop fair to good working relationships with the White House press corps based on constant interaction and realization of the fact that they need each other.

A posting to the White House is a prestigious assignment that many reporters actively seek. Such a posting virtually guarantees a significant amount of face-time on television or column inches in print. Obviously, these reporters need access to the President and his team if they are to do their jobs well. But so far they have had trouble getting that access.

On the very first day of the Clinton Administration, the White House press corps expressed outrage at being kept out of the office of the Press Secretary. This inauspicious start continued when Clinton began pursuing the strategy of creating stories in other news markets, and slating interviews with local reporters outside of Washington. He by-passed the sometimes cynical Washington reporters in an effort to reach directly out to the voters. In a sense, this is no different than how he behaved and treated the press during his successful election campaign. But in doing so, he missed a critical point: the press corps he was avoiding was not the same one that he had won over during the course of ten long months of campaigning.

The White House press corps, although they may develop an affinity for a President, they will not hesitate to ask the hard questions when the time comes. And the time will come—Clinton cannot avoid these people forever.

Because of the nature of their positions, the members of the White House press corps become experts, over time, on the behavior of the Executive Branch and its relationship with other branches, especially the Congress. Moreover, after watching the White House and President Bush during the Gulf War and the decision to send troops to Somalia, they have also developed an expertise in how the President deals with foreign policy challenges. Because of this expertise, other members of the press will defer to the White House press corps when certain key issues arise. And this is where the President needs the White House press crops.

So long as Clinton, or any President, is creating the news, they can afford to force the press to ask the questions that the Administration has put in the public mind and on the public agenda; they can control the coverage and the message that gets out. But should the President lose control of the agenda, which could happen either in the case of a bruising fight with Congress over health care reform or because of some foreign crisis, the roles are reversed and the White House press corps can force the Administration to react while it controls the coverage and the message.

This is, after all, the same press corps that helped bring President Bush’s approval ratings down from over 90% to well below 50%. This is press crops that mercilessly hounded candidate Bush during the final months of the 1992 campaign. The White House press corps has the ability, over time, to play a large role in how the public perceives the President. By challenging the authority of the White House press corps so early in his term, Clinton has ruffled some feathers.

President Clinton has taken on a number of major challenges early in his presidency. And, as I’ve noted in past columns, he has preformed well thus far. But there are problems; some systemic (health care), some of his Administration’s own making (homosexuals in the military), and some extraordinary (Perot and Limbaugh). All of them could weaken his ability to set the national agenda and maintain the popularity he will need to govern effectively.

Politics is a never-ending story in the United States.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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