Posted on June 20, 1993 in Washington Watch

After the President’s popularity reached its low point two weeks ago, the White House made a determined effort to discipline itself and improve its relations with the powerful Washington press corps. Now, Clinton’s efforts to regain his political strength in Washington are beginning to show some signs of success.

However, because not all of the problems now facing him are of his own creation, success will be neither easy nor complete. The U.S. public’s opinion about politics and government as a whole will not be easy to fix. And with demagogues like Ross Perot preaching a message of populist alienation, Clinton’s job of selling complicated programs of government and social reform is all the more difficult.

Perot’s message is dangerously simple. He has spent the months following Clinton’s inauguration attacking the new President, the Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the Congress itself. Then, after cutting down every major political figure and every institution of government, Perot quips, `You want change, you want things to work again? It’s easy: trust me, I’ll do it.’

The President, on the other hand, is experiencing complexities and difficulties of governing at first-hand. He realizes that, for his plan to succeed, he must win key votes in both the House of Representatives and the Senate—even though he doesn’t always have enough votes to stop Republican efforts to block his plans. So he must devise compromises that will allow him to proceed.

And, to his credit, the President has fashioned the needed compromises—but they do not come without a risk. In building a compromise to appeal to centrists, for example, he cannot afford to move so far that he loses the votes of liberals. And this is the second problem facing Clinton that is not of his own making: the deeply divided Democratic Party.

But the most serious of the obstacle to his success thus far has been the cynicism and hostility of the Washington press corps.

As I recounted in earlier columns, the initial White House strategy was to go over the heads of the Washington press corps and take the President’s message directly to the local press. But this strategy was ill-fated from the beginning and has, in fact, been responsible for many of the President’s recent problems.

The press corps, alert and vengeful, picked up on each and every White House mistake and raised them to the level of major national stories. And the President’s popularity has declined with each negative story.

But despite Clinton’s drop in the polls, or perhaps because of it, three general observations must be made:

First, the U.S. is not a parliamentary system like those of Canada, Great Britain or Japan. When Canada’s Mulroney, for example, reached a low point in the polls, his party put pressure on him to resign; and when Japan’s Miyazawa fell from grace he received a vote of no-confidence from the Parliament and was forced to either resign or call new elections.

But the U.S. Presidency is an independent branch of government, and unless convicted by the Senate of a “high crime or misdemeanor”, the President cannot be removed from office. Once elected, the U.S. President will hold office for four years, and can exercise a substantial amount of independent power. While occasionally problematic, this provides the U.S. government with a significant amount of stability. Thus, Clinton has three and a half years to try to regain his political strength, and, to help him do so, he has at his disposal all the powers and prestige of the Presidency.

So, while Clinton has allowed the Congress to take significant control over his economic program in an effort to win the compromises that will enable it to pass, he retains, as President and Democratic party leader, the power to:
· demand that any compromise that is reached be acceptable to him;
· use the “bully pulpit” (as President Teddy Roosevelt called it) to persuade the American people to urge Congress in the direction he would to see them go;
· use the various powers of the Presidency to reward those who support his efforts and to punish (by denying funds and limiting access) to those who oppose his efforts;
· and, if all the above measures fail, to veto legislation that he does not approve of.

Second, simultaneous with the President’s appointment of David Gergen (who developed broad experience in White House communications while serving under Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan) as Director of Communications and tasked him with improving White House-press relations, there has been an observable backlash in the public’s attitudes about the press and the press’ attitudes about itself.

Americans do not like to see their presidents treated shabbily by anyone, particularly not by an “un-elected press.” In fact, polls show that the public’s respect for the press is lower than its respect for the institutions of the Presidency and the Congress. So while the press can hurt a president (and they certainly have hurt this one), there is a self-correcting aspect to the system.

A recent poll showed 43% of American adults said that the press was unfairly harsh in its treatment of Clinton; and 58% felt sympathy for the President, attributing many of his difficulties to “part of the learning process that new presidents must go through.” When asked whether they preferred Clinton’s budget plan or the Senate’s, the respondents again showed that Americans tend to support their President, with a 68% to 21% majority preferring the Presidents’ budget plan. Further, by a margin of 60% to 20% they felt that Republican attacks on Clinton’s plan were the result of partisanship and not actual disagreement over policy.

Thus, despite his own low popularity in current polls, the presidency remains a strong position held high in public regard. In recent weeks, Clinton has traveled to a number of fundraising events for Democrats who are running in 1994—and he has raised more than $1,000,000 at each event.

Third, to some extent, Clinton’s problems seem to be a function of the end of the Cold war and the world-wide economic downturn. When seen in this light, despite all his difficulties, Clinton has a far higher approval rating than the leaders of other industrial democracies:

U.S.’s Bill Clinton 38%
Poland’s Lech Walesa 31%
Germany’s Helmut Kohl 27%
Britain’s John Major 25%
Canada’s Brian Mulroney 15%
Japan’s Kiichi Miyazawa 9%

And all domestic polls show that despite some drop in his job performance ratings, Clinton remains a popular and well-liked President with a strong core of supporters.

***

As part of his effort to regain his political strength, rebuild his ties with the White House press corps and sell his economic plan, Clinton held two press conferences this week. And by any measure, these press conferences were successful, accomplishing each of the President’s major goals.

The themes that were covered this week were the President’s themes—not the press’ reactions to his ideas—an early indication that the new White House strategy or the press’s self-criticism was beginning to have an effect. For example, the Washington Post headlined the first press conference: “Clinton Defends His Record—President recounts decisive action of first five months”. And according to most press accounts, the President was seen as “passionate, intense, yet good-natured.”

In this first press conference Clinton gave a spirited defense of his foreign policy, sounding firm on Somalia—“we could not let it [Aidid’s ambush] go unpunished”—and frustrated but not defensive on Bosnia on which he reaffirmed his policy but acknowledged that U.S. action was limited by the failure of NATO allies and Russia to support stronger measures against Serbia.

The President was also quite strong in defense of his performance in pushing his budget through Congress. He also observed that

No President’s budget has been taken seriously in this town for 12 years—three-quarters of the Representatives in the House voted against President Bush’s last budget. I sent a budget up there that passed on time…for the first time in 12 years and we’re out there fighting for those tough decisions…This is the most decisive Presidency you’ve had in a very long time on all of the big issues that matter.

The second press conference was equally successful, and the press coverage of it was equally upbeat. This time, the President focused much of the time on his economic program and his legislative agenda. He strongly presented his record of accomplishments of the past few weeks: campaign finance reform passed the first hurdle in the Senate, and his economic plan passed its first tests in the House and Senate.

There have been a great many varying reports about the compromises involved in putting together the Senate version of Clinton’s economic plan, so its worth a closer look at this point.

The President knew that his controversial BTU tax would fail, due to opposition by several Southern Democratic Senators who sit on a key committee. And so, instead of setting himself up for defeat, in a meeting with the Senate Democratic leadership Clinton left the door open to compromise by stating over-arching principles which, he stipulated, must govern any compromise reached in deliberation. The principles were that the bill must produce $500 billion in deficit reduction, it must balance new taxes with budget cuts, and new taxes must be progressive so as to undo the excesses of the Reagan era when the burden of taxes fell disproportionately on the middle class.

This approach was echoed by Office of Management and Budget Director Leon Panetta, who suggestively noted that the “BTU tax was only one small part” of the $500 billion deficit reduction program. But, “If they get rid of it,” he added, “They [the Senate] will have to find some other way to raise the money.”

While the BTU tax was compromised away (and was replaced by a smaller energy tax) in the final Senate bill, the President’s principles were all implemented. His claim of victory was justified—this will be the first deficit reduction program in 12 years.

While House members worked for Clinton’s bill are upset about having passed a BTU tax (a great potential risk) only to be undercut by the Senate, Clinton is assuring them that they haven’t lost yet. Since the House and Senate bills differ, the final budget bill will emerge only after the leadership of both the House and the Senate sit in what is called a “conference committee” to iron out the differences. In “conference”, the President stands a better chance of maintaining at least a modified version of the BTU tax than he did in the Senate. And he has promised to fight for it.

Five months into his new Presidency, Bill Clinton—who, as he says, “did not live and work in this city”—is learning the ways of Washington. He began his term with a number of bold (some might say too bold) initiatives. He has faced down a hostile Republican opposition, a divided Democratic Party, an upset and at times arrogant press, and some serious and not-so-serious mistakes of his own making.

Right now, Clinton appears to be emerging with some legislative successes, an improved White House communications operation, and with new resolves to project a strong image abroad and at home.

His problems, especially those not of his own making, have not gone away and probably will not in the foreseeable future—they are structural and systemic. But, as he showed this week, those problems can be dealt with. Now he passes on to the next round of challenges: health care reform, welfare reform, and a complicated campaign finance reform proposal. This is a President who is tackling major problems very early in his Administration. Though he may slip a bit and suffer attacks, he has three and a half years to rebound and win. Based on the past two weeks, he may be making progress in that direction.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

comments powered by Disqus