Posted on May 10, 1993 in Washington Watch
By any realistic standard, 100 days is an insufficient amount of time to judge the success or failure of a President. But it has become a great American game played all too vigorously by press and politicians alike.
This presents many problems for President Clinton. His first 100 days were mixed: he experienced some successes and some failures. There is some disarray at the White House. And maybe most serious for the President is the fact that he, himself, raised the expectation that he would bring about sweeping changes within the first 100 days of his Administration.
President Clinton was elected to office by a coalition of Democrats and others who found hope in his message and promise: to rejuvenate the nation’s sagging economy, to create jobs, to promote diversity in government and tolerance in our society, to address the inequalities of the Reagan revolution, and to do all of this as a “new kind of Democrat.”
Clinton’s initial problem was that he was elected by only 43% of the voters—a base much to small to serve effectively as a mandate for sweeping change. Too many promises to too many constituent groups combined with too little political capital is a recipe for trouble, as Clinton found out very quickly.
One could see indications of this problem shortly after Clinton’s victory last November. Shortly after the election I attended a meeting of leaders of many diverse Democratic groups (environmentalists, feminists, African Americans, Latinos, labor leaders and others) in Washington. The purpose of the meeting was to present a list of demands that these various leaders wanted Clinton to address in his first 100 days. Very few of these demands overlapped.
Clinton’s campaign manager David Wilhelm, who is now Chairman of the Democratic Party, represented the President-elect at this meeting. After hearing the long list of petitions from this group—all of which were to be handled in the first 100 days—one of Wilhelm’s aides asked, “Doesn’t anyone have something that can wait until the second or third 100 days? Everything can’t be done at once.”
Through his first few days in office, however, Clinton seemed determined to try to address at least a large number of these concerns. He experienced a number of setbacks, even before his inauguration, including the battle over lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military, the Zoe Baird confirmation problem, and the fiasco surrounding his campaign promise to allow Haitians to emigrate to the U.S. By the end of the second week he seemed to have learned a lesson about trying to do too much too fast.
But even after the President promised to focus “like a laser” on the economy and got a large segment of the public to agree, the very same problem arose again. There were just too many economic demands from too many diverse communities in his own coalition. And the 43% factor even allowed the Republicans and some conservative Democrats to get away with a calculated gamble to stall Clinton’s economic program. This all was clear at a White House meeting I attended with Vice President Al Gore, together with many of the same constituent leaders who had attended the November 1992 meeting.
The Vice President had called the meeting to urge us to fight for the Administration’s “jobs creation package.” His appeal was simple and clear-cut. He pointed out that the current economic recovery was weak and had created no jobs. In fact, when compared with the last seven economic recoveries, the current recovery lagged behind the others by some 4.5 million jobs. Without new employment opportunities, Gore explained, the recovery was in danger of stopping and actually reversing itself. He further argued that other aspect’s of Clinton’s stimulus package were just as critical because, without Federal intervention, there would be no large-scale summer jobs program for inner-city youths, no vaccination program for unprotected children, and no economic grants to cities sorely in need of new funds for construction and public works projects.
Gore concluded his remarks by pointing out that these were all issues that he and the President felt had been campaigning for, and what the American people had voted for. The Vice President tried to make the point that the Republicans who were blocking the stimulus package were, in effect, trying to undo the results of the election.
While the Vice President’s message made eminent sense to those of us in the room, a stark reality that could not be ignored by anyone with a practical sense of politics is that although Clinton had indeed been elected on this program, only 43% of the voters endorsed this program with their ballots. The obvious corollary, as Clinton’s leading Republican opponent in the Senate, Bob Dole, pointed out, “57% of the American people voted against President Clinton.” Dole continued that despite the Republicans’ lack of a majority in the Senate, he felt that he had a right to block the President’s program as a spokesman for the 57% who voted against Clinton.
As if this weren’t enough, the absence of a sweeping mandate and the presence of competing demands by diverse interest groups haven’t been Clinton’s only problems during his first 100 days. There have been other difficulties as well. And unlike the first two, which stem from factors beyond the Administration’s control, the press has recently begun to focus on problems that begin and end at the White House.
The White House staff, it is said, are too young and inexperienced. Their brash and arrogant behavior has alienated the national and Washington press corps and, at times, even piqued members of Congress. On too many occasions the mistakes of the White House staff have created severe political embarrassments for the President. The conventional wisdom is that, while Clinton’s young group of domestic policy advisors and strategists had the skills needed to run a campaign, they have not yet made the transition to being able to govern the country.
Interestingly enough, there are comparisons being made between the State Department and National Security Council foreign policy staff on the one hand, and the White House domestic policy staff on the other.
The Clinton foreign policy team is the opposite of the White House group. Clinton picked seasoned professionals to lead both the National Security Council and the State Department. Even down to the second and third tiers of authority, the foreign policy team is an experienced group, and it shows. While Clinton’s pursuit of his domestic agenda has been unfocused and in many was ineffective (which is a major setback for a President who promised to be a “domestic leader first”), the Clinton foreign policy team has been quite effective.
Warren Christopher, Anthony Lake and their teams have juggled a variety of world problems and crises, they have done so with generally deft hands. There has been dialogue in their decision-making process and order in their work. Clinton has been well-served by them.
One situation in which the gap in performance between the domestic and foreign policy teams at handling crises becomes most glaring concerns Clinton’s desire to take a decisive stand to protect the Bosnian Muslims and help bring peace to the former Yugoslavia.
Since his election Clinton has been moving slowly and deliberately to increase pressure on the Bosnian Serbs and their allies. He has now crafted an ultimatum and is threatening military action. Secretary Christopher has been dispatched to Europe to garner support for the President’s plan.
But if Clinton is to be able to put his plan into action, he must have Congressional support and the support of the American people. It will be the job of the White House staff to sell an activist Bosnia policy to Congress and the a large segment of U.S. popular opinion. Some are worried that, based on their past performance, the White House staff may not be up to the task.
The President is fully aware of the problems his Administration has experienced so far. He’s seen his support in the polls dip to a low 53% approval rating—the lowest mark for any post-World War II president after his first 100 days. Clinton has also seen figures showing that the same media that buried George Bush is now out to get him. One recent study showed that during the first 100 days only 42% of the television coverage of Clinton’s actions was favorable, as opposed to 62% favorable coverage on Bush in his first 100 days.
Especially problematic for the President were negative stories about his poor cabinet nominations, the issue of homosexuals in the military and concern about his tax policy. Even now, in the weeks leading to the unveiling of the President’s health care plan, the press focus is not on health care but on the various trial balloons floated by the Administration in recent weeks indicating how the government would plan to raise revenue to pay for the Health care plan. As Clinton knows, the best way to lose the fight over health care would be if his opponents managed to get the public to perceive it as a fight over taxes rather than a fight for health care for all Americans.
And finally, Clinton has seen too many instances in which senior White House officials send out competing and sometimes contradictory messages to the press. This takes place when there are two (or more) competing camps in the White House who both believe that their view should carry the day. Their covert strategy to win the debate is to leak negative stories about the other position to the press in order to create a public sentiment that makes the other proposal impossible for the Administration to propose. Given the lack of discipline at the White House thus far, and the reality that there are competing camps in the debate over health care financing, the possibility of negative leaks is a legitimate concern for Clinton.
But all of these problems can be corrected, and the President seems determined to do so.
Clinton has rejected the negative assessments of his first 100 days that abound in the press. He points instead to his victories—and not only to programs that have already passed but to also to difficult problems that he has tackled:
Â· his budget plan passed in record time;
Â· he signed the Family and Medical Leave Act;
Â· he cut the size of the White House staff by 25% and saved billions of dollars by cutting 100,000 jobs from the federal government through attrition and early retirement;
Â· he proposed a national service program, a new environmental policy, a child immunization program and political reform (including tight new ethics codes, limits on lobbyists and campaign finance reform).
Yet Clinton knows that proposing programs is not enough—he must have a team capable of moving proposals through Congress and into law. So this week, in a series of candid remarks, Clinton acknowledged the lack of focus and discipline in his staff. he has also ordered a shake-up in both staff responsibilities and in how the Administration will sell its economic and domestic agenda to the country.
So begin Clinton’s second 100 days—with some of the luster worn off, a bit more seasoned and wary of the pitfalls of Washington politics, determined to correcting mistakes and moving forward to broaden the base of support necessary to pass his agenda.
How well he sells his Bosnia policy will be an early test of Clinton’s ability, now that he has had a chance to adjust to Washington and revamp his White House operation. If he can succeed in mobilizing the country to support his tough stand, and if his policy proves successful, Clinton may get the leadership boost he needs for his second 100 days. This will, of course, be an ironic repetition of George Bush’s presidency; after all, it was only after the success of the Gulf war that Bush achieved the major leadership boost of his term. But the irony would not be complete, because Clinton would almost certainly use the domestic boost gained from any victory in Bosnia to advance his domestic agenda—something the Bush failed to do.
However, a great deal must happen, both within U.S. domestic opinion and on the ground in Bosnia, before any of this comes to be. And Clinton has a great deal of work to do to make certain that he is prepared to secure a victory in both arenas. With this in mind, the next 100 days should prove to be as interesting and as important as the first.
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