Posted on October 25, 1994 in Washington Watch

It is an upbeat Bill Clinton, now being viewed in the U.S. as a “Foreign Policy President”, who tours the Arab world this week.

The positive swing in the President’s popularity ratings began with Haiti, gained momentum with Iraq, continued with the completion of negotiations with Korea and, the administration hopes, will soar even higher after a successful Middle East tour.

Some White House aides cautioned against this trip to the Middle East, noting that it would take the President away from a full campaign schedule in the weeks before the November 8th congressional elections.

But the President, sensing both the importance of this moment in the Middle East and the potential domestic political impact of a successful Middle East visit, opted for a crowded and quite substantial 6 country tour of the region.

Like all modern U.S. Presidents, Clinton has had a difficult time getting his message unfiltered through the media. Decades ago when a President called a press conference or addressed the nation, he commanded full public attention.

Today, however, given the proliferation of television channels available to most Americans, and given the cynicism of most U.S. political reporters and finally given the constant and changing flow of mostly “bad” news on local, state, national and international levels it becomes quite difficult for any President to break through and reach the American people with a message that he can control.

If the President stayed at home and campaigned for local democratic candidates in stages around the U.S., he would have generated some local press coverage and possibly helped those Democrats with whom he visited.

But by traveling to the Middle East and delivering major televised addresses in Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Syria, the President is guaranteed to dominate the national news back in the U.S. for at least 4 days.

With U.S. prestige committed to the peace process and with U.S. Military forces committed in Kuwait, the U.S. public will follow Bill Clinton’s visit closely. And what they will see are displays of presidential leadership by Clinton and signs of respect shown to their President by so many heads of state.

When Clinton returns to the U.S. his aura of leadership will have grown and his ratings in popularity polls should increase as well. His ratings has already climbed 10 points in the past month and should increase a few more points in the coming week.

Thus it is that the President on his return to the U.S. will be in an even better position to campaign and win support for Democratic candidates around the U.S.

The maxim in U.S. politics is that “all politics are local”... meaning, in part, that the most important issues in a congressional or senate campaign are the local ones that face each candidate… his or her own record of achievement, personal character, and responsiveness to local voter concerns.

This year, Republicans, sensing that Bill Clinton was both weak and unpopular, sought to violate that maxim and make these congressional elections a national referendum on Bill Clinton.

And so nationwide Republican candidates attacked their Democratic opponents in speeches and TV ads with lines like, “He supported Bill Clinton”, or “He’s Bill Clinton’s candidate”.

Until now this effort has had some success, so much so that many Democratic candidates had begun to run away from the President. They urged the White House not to come to their districts to support them or they produced their own TV ads boasting how many times they voted against the President.

What else, these Democrats told the White House, were they to do as long as the President’s poll ratings were in the low mid-30s.

But with the President’s ratings up, in some polls as high as 48%, he is already having a positive effect in some states. Clinton’s recent campaign swing to New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia added points to the ratings of Democrats running in those states.

And even if he doesn’t directly help each Democrat running, the White House calculates that by increasing the President’s popularity at least they remove the national issue of a “weak” Bill Clinton from this year’s elections. This will allow the local issues of each campaign to re-emerge as dominant.

In several key races this has already occurred. Just a few weeks ago, with Clinton at his low point, a prominent Republican newsletter was predicting a “tidal wave change” in the elections. The “national referendum on Clinton”, the letter said, “may produce as many as 12 new Republican senators, a sweep in the gubernatorial elections and as many as 55 new Republican Congressmen”. Such leading Democratic officials as Sen. Ted Kennedy, Gov. Mario Cuomo and Speaker of the House Tom Foley were all viewed as certain losers. But no longer. By focusing on local issues and on the records and political positions of their opponents, these incumbents have succeeded in gaining ground in their re-election efforts. And the same is true in several other important races as well.

It is still too early to give any firm predictions to the outcome of this year’s election, but several observations can be made.

By increasing his personal standing in the polls, Clinton is reducing the chances of this election being decided as a referendum on his presidency.

While Republicans will pick up both senate and congressional seats, it is expected that the opposition party will do so in a mid-term election. But the Republican gains will most probably be closer to the expected 4 senate and 30 congressional seats than the “tidal wave” of change that was predicted earlier. Given the volatility of voter moods, it can be worse for the Democrats … but current indicators indicate that it won’t be.

Clinton will emerge from his election a bit stronger, more focused and emphasizing more “centrist” themes as he shapes the remaining two years of his term. Already this shape is emerging in the themes Clinton is developing in his campaigning. The issues the President has been raising are: the war on crime, welfare reform, more tax cuts and reductions in the size of government, and an emphasis on personal and parental responsibility.

Finally, if the President can maintain his new momentum in foreign affairs he will continue to grow in stature. While reporting on his personal problems will once again reappear in coming months and fights with the new congress will again dominate the news in 1995, what Clinton has learned is that a President who is viewed with strength and respect abroad, earns important political credits at home. And the aura of a successful foreign policy President can be an asset in promoting a domestic agenda as well.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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