Posted on December 07, 1992 in Washington Watch

One month after winning the Presidency, and six weeks before assuming office, Bill Clinton is facing a dramatically changing political landscape, both inside the Washington beltway and the world outside it.

Clinton based his campaign on a promise of immediate economic and political reform. Within 100 days of taking office, he pledged to end gridlock in Washington and pass an immediate economic relief package to kick-start the U.S. economy and provide relief for the underprivileged and the beleaguered middle class.

One month later there are serious doubts as to whether or not such short-term economic programs are necessary or even advisable. To Clinton’s surprise (and Bush’s chagrin), almost every economic indicator issued during the weeks after the election has been positive. The Purchasing Manager’s Index is up 4.5 percent to 54.2 percent (any score over 50 percent indicates economic growth). The Unemployment Rate is down to 7.2 percent, the lowest it has been in seven months, and with still another drop projected for December. New factory orders have risen steadily with a strong 3 percent growth rate in September and October. The construction industry experienced a similar rise over the last two months. And the important Index of Leading Economic Indicators has risen—the first such increase in four months.

As a result of this not unwelcome good news, the Clinton team has had to revise its plans. Important economic figures on Wall Street and elsewhere are cautioning the Clinton economic team not to do too much for fear of what might do to a still fragile but genuine economic recovery. And while the Clinton team is committed to addressing the long-term structural problems in the U.S. economy and the equally important issue of the federal budget deficit, their plans to initiate short-term relief are back on the drawing board.

This may be the reason that Clinton and his advisors have planned to hold an economic “Summit” (which has since been downgraded to an “economic conference”). It will be a national teach-in, an educational seminar for the whole nation on the state of the economy and an opportunity for Clinton to showcase his new economic policy team and their new somewhat scaled-down economic proposals.

The conference will in essence be a continuation of the campaign—a tactical approach Clinton feels he needs in order to build public support for his initiatives, and for his proposed changes in policy and programs. This is important, given the twin realities that Clinton won only 43 percent of the vote and that there are so many new faces in the Congress who may want to go their own way. Clinton will need demonstrate strong grass-roots support for his proposals as a way of showing that he does indeed have a national mandate, and as a lever to use against recalcitrant members of Congress.

Rather than holding a press conference, which allows the press to act as a filter for the message before it reaches the public, the national economic conference will serve as a direct contact with the public, much like the presidential debates and town meetings worked to establish direct contact during the campaign. It will also serve to educate the public on the full scale of the problems to be faced, and at the same time allowing Clinton to build support around his proposals to solve them.

While the economic news was welcome, despite being somewhat disruptive, other dramatic events both in Washington and in the world may prove to be both disruptive and unwelcome to the President-elect.

News that President Bush is sending U.S. troops to Somalia (and may even, before January 20th, commit U.S. forces to Bosnia) brings concern the Clinton team. They have publicly supported a strong U.S. response to both the crises and have even encouraged the use of UN force if necessary, both to assist relief efforts in Somalia and stop ethnic “cleansing” in Bosnia. But there are some real questions about what the situations will be, especially in Somalia, after January 20th.

While still promising to focus “like a laser” on domestic and economic issues, the very fact the U.S. troops will be engaged in open-ended military operations at the time of his inaugural will no doubt serve as a source of distraction for the President-elect.

If that were not enough to provide a distraction from domestic and economic issues, the need to break the deadlock in the Middle East peace negotiations, the ever-volatile situation both in Russia and the Central Asian Republics, new tensions over the Uruguay Round of GATT Negotiations and some as yet unresolved questions regarding the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA)—all of these issues will be on the desk of newly sworn-in President Clinton on January 20th, when he arrives in his motorcade from the Capitol.

And, in addition to these major international questions, President-elect Clinton must yet develop a strategy to deal with domestic tensions that will present some complications during the supposed honeymoon period of his first 100 days in office.

One issue, for example, that was forced to the surface long before Clinton was ready to deal with it is the questions of ending the ban on homosexuals in the military. Clinton promised to end the ban during the campaign, but not in his first 100 days in office and not until his other and less controversial domestic initiatives have been implemented.

No president wants to begin his term with a divisive controversy, especially one so certain to inflame a debate within the military establishment. But the press, picking up on some statements made by Clinton in New Jersey only days before the election, has forced the issue forward. And while Clinton tries to put this issue back in its place, it has already generated and will continue to generate some distracting debates.

Clinton has also run into some unexpected and unwanted trouble with some members of the Democratic leadership in Congress. Speaker of the House Tom Foley, for example, has agreed to accept a compromise on Clinton’s request for a line-item veto. Currently the President must either sign or veto entire bills passed by Congress; and if he vetoes, a two-thirds majority vote in both Houses of Congress is needed to override his veto. The problem is that most often the legislation sent up for the President’s consideration is quite complex with many different parts, some of which the President likes and some of which he dislikes. Some parts of a bill may be quite extreme and added solely in order to force the President’s hand.

At present, the President must either reject an entire bill because of one section he viscerally disagrees with, or sign it despite what he views as a serious flaw. This is why Clinton, like Bush and most Presidents before him, wanted a line-item veto, the power to veto individual sections of legislation while leaving the rest of the bill intact. This is a power that Clinton used effectively as Governor of Arkansas, and forty-two other governors also have it. Foley has agreed to compromise with Clinton (in deal which gives the President what is called a “line-item recision” where any part of a bill vetoed by a president could be reinstated with a simple majority vote in both Chambers of the Congress), but Senator Robert Byrd, the powerful Senator from West Virginia who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee which writes most of the senate’s spending bills, has been adamant in his opposition to any compromise on this issue. And so Clinton will surely face a challenge on this matter.

Other Congressmen and Senators have recently indicated real displeasure with Clinton’s initiatives for an Investment Tax Credit and middle class tax relief—two cornerstones of his proposed economic package.

Another source of potential difficulty is coming from the Republican heads of Agencies and Departments in the outgoing Administration. While only 3,000 or so of them are Presidential appointees, and they must leave when the new Administration appoints its own team, there are thousands of other positions that are career positions whose occupants do not change. What Democrats have feared might happen is apparently happening, as hundreds of executive decisions are being made by Bush appointees both in policy areas and in personnel areas so as to confront the Clinton team with some established facts on January 21st. For example, several appointees, rather than leaving their posts, are being transferred to lower level but career positions in their agencies or departments.

One final problem that Clinton will face is a problem not seen in Washington in the last twelve years, and that is the disruption that can come with a transferal of the governmental staff from one political party to the other.

The appointment process is a long a difficult one in this country. The President-elect must first screen possible appointees and then interview them. He seeks both people both compatible with his philosophy and with the overall team. After making his selections public, the confirmation process begins.

First the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and other government agencies begin a security and background check on the appointees. This takes a period of time that could be as long as four or six weeks. Clinton must review the information revealed in the background and security investigations before submitting names to the Senate for confirmation, which must vote as a body to confirm hundreds of the Clinton appointees. During this process the Senate will hold hearings on each appointee—some of which will be public, allowing testimony from the public both for against—and then vote. Only after confirmation by the Senate may the appointee be sworn into his or her position and take office.

Each cabinet-level appointment must also be supplemented with by 50 to 100 sub-cabinet appointments, all of which must be approved in the same way.

As complicated and as time-consuming as this process is, it cannot be entirely completed by January 21st leaving a situation in which we can expect that some offices in the Executive Branch will be unoccupied on January 21st or, in the words of a former Reagan White House staffer, “offices are closed and the lights are off and the phones aren’t being answered.” This would not only be very disruptive, it would bring a negative story on the first day of the Clinton Presidency and also slow down the speed with which he can implement his initiatives, since there will not be the proper people in place to do some jobs.

Yet despite all of these complications, both unexpected and in some cases unwelcome, the Clinton transition effort is receiving high marks from friend and foe alike. The transition team is being cautious and level-headed. They seem determined not to rush into decisions or to become reactive when presented with surprises. A great deal of positive credit is being given to Clinton’s very young (31 years old) spokesperson, a Greek American, George Stephanopoulos. He has served on a daily basis as the public face and voice of the incoming Administration. He is ever calm, reassuring and always forgiving.

Stephanopoulos’ role as spokesperson will be a key in the new Administration, since Clinton, in this regard like Reagan, sees the continuity between politics and policy, and between politics and communication. Unlike Reagan, however, Clinton is not an ideologue and so he does not bring a social movement, or the mass base of support such a movement represents, with him into power. He must instead rely on convincing the public of his direction and goals.

This tendency of the President-elect has already been observed by the media and it is being termed the “perpetual campaign.” Clinton, it appears, will not rest in the White House, but will maintain the same kind of political campaign approach to governing that worked so well for him while campaigning. He will orchestrate regular public events; seek direct contact with voters; and seek to mobilize support for his policies (which means the traditional press conferences will play less of a role in his Administration than Americans got accustomed to during the Reagan and, especially, Bush Administrations); and seek greater diversity and inclusiveness in his own political circle in an effort to build a strong public consensus and translate that into support for a new Democratic coalition.

Unlike Jimmy Carter, the last Democratic President, but like Reagan and unlike Bush (with the exception of the one success of his Administration in building strong public support for the Gulf War), Clinton will tie politics to governing, and linking the development of policy to winning confidence and consensus through communications.

Given the challenges that he faces—being a President elected by a minority of the voting public—and facing a formidable set of challenges even before he begins office, Clinton will need to win and maintain strong public support if he is to succeed.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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