Posted on February 22, 1993 in Washington Watch

Secretary of State Warren Christopher is the only member of President Clinton’s cabinet not traveling around the U.S. building support for the President’s economic program.

As Christopher and his aides visit five Arab states and Israel in an effort to restart the Middle East peace talks, the President, Vice President Gore and the rest of the cabinet will be utilizing most of the resources of the Administration on the home front. This is not a sign that Middle East peace and international affairs are not important to the President, but that—true to his campaign pledge—Clinton has committed his resources to fundamental economic and political reform in this country.

The new President has a tough battle facing him as he tries to undo the `Reagan revolution’ of lower taxes, lower government services and staggering federal deficits. Clinton has called on Congress and the American people to swallow a bitter pill. And while most analysts agree that Clinton’s move is essentially correct, it is politically risky.

As we have seen while watching the past several Administrations, simply winning an election is not sufficient to establish one’s leadership and it certainly does nothing to define one’s presidency. George Bush’s experience is instructive in this regard.

Bush did not define himself as the president by defeating Michael Dukakis in 1988. He was still viewed as Reagan’s heir, a caretaker president. Democrats did not accord him nearly the same level of respect as they begrudging did to the charismatic Reagan. Republicans didn’t trust Bush because they saw him as lacking in principles, a “wimp” and not as a leader.

Bush struggled through the colorless first eighteen months of his presidency. Unlike Reagan, who had strong support from the social conservative movement and the uncanny communication skills necessary to win support from others when needed, Bush was unable to mobilize sufficient public support to move his agenda through Congress. His now famous 1990 budget agreement with Congress was the clearest indication of his weakness. Unable to force Congress to adopt his program, he had to break his benchmark pledge of “no new taxes” in order to get Congress to move at all on the budget. As Bush later lamented, “I agreed to new taxes so that Congress would agree to spending cuts.” But while the taxes were passed, the spending cuts never materialized.

What finally succeeded in establishing Bush’s leadership was his role in the war to liberate Kuwait. It was a masterful political campaign that slowly and carefully built not only an international coalition but, more importantly, mobilized domestic base of support which enabled him to overcome U.S. isolationist tendencies and go to war.

Bush campaigned like a candidate to build his base, and in the end he won—not just a war—but overwhelming public support for his presidency. As one political analyst at the time described the height of popularity to which Bush had risen, “Who was Ronald Reagan—George Bush has now entered the public mind as our definition of `the President.’” When this new George Bush appeared before a joint session of Congress on March 6, 1991, at the end of the Gulf war, he was the hero of all America. With 91% approval ratings, no Democrat dared to challenge him.

His speech was a profound statement of U.S. policy in the Middle East and a call for a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He knew that the end of the war created a window of opportunity for positive movement toward this comprehensive settlement, and correctly deduced that the U.S. had to play a major role in setting the process in motion. He chose to invest his political capital to create Middle East peace.

[It is ironic that while it was that very speech which so captivated Arabs and solidified their support for Bush it was also, in retrospect, the speech that cost Bush his reelection. Had he invested his political capital in pushing his agenda through Congress, he might have been viewed as more sensitive to the nation’s economic problems and less responsible for them. It took a year for this to become clear, and by then Bush’s political capital was eroded by the state of the U.S. economy.]

President Clinton is determined to tackle head-on the deep economic problems of the U.S., and to establish his leadership and define his presidency in the process. It appears at first glance that he will have an easier job than George Bush in getting his program through Congress because Clinton’s Democratic party controls both the Senate and the House—a luxury Bush did not have. But first glances can be deceptive: because it will bring pain to so many different interest groups, Clinton will not have an easy time pushing a tough economic plan through the Congress.

Clinton’s program in its simplest form has two major components. First is his analysis, which is shared by many Democrats and Republicans and Ross Perot, that the U.S. economy is unsound. This economy is stagnant, not creating new jobs, and ill-equipped to compete with international competitors such as Germany and Japan. The federal deficit is an almost overwhelming problem that must be addressed because it not only is expanding at an alarming rate, but has also reached the point where interest payments on it are the single largest component of each year’s federal budget.

The second major component of the President’s program is a factored solution to the current crisis which he insists must be approved as a whole: an economic stimulus package to create 500,000 new jobs, retrain workers who lose jobs due to structural changes in the economy, and rebuild and modernize the nation’s infrastructure; a wide array of budget cuts to eliminate outmoded programs and wasteful spending; increased taxes, progressively administered so that the burden—while distributed across the whole society—falls greater on those who can most afford to pay. While the goal of the stimulus package is obvious, the goal of the cuts and the new taxes is to pay for the new programs while reducing the deficit in the long term and undoing the inequities in the U.S. tax system created by the `Reagan revolution.’”

Republicans are attacking Clinton’s stimulus package as unnecessary and therefore inflationary, and his new taxes and a burden that will slow down the economic recovery. Many Democrats in Congress and special interest groups are bothered by one or another of the proposed spending cuts. So when the actual budget makes its way to Capitol Hill next month, there will plenty of people ready to try and tear it apart.

The Senate and the House are both deliberative bodies comprised of a total of 535 elected individuals, which obviously makes an attempt to control them highly problematic. Each of these locally elected officials vote in a manner that they feel will assist their constituents—and hence their own reelections. Even if a member of Congress is a Democrat, s/he will think twice about supporting a Presidential proposal that may adversely affect residents in her/his home state or district. This may be an even greater problem for Clinton than for other recent presidents because no one has forgotten that he won the presidency with only 43% of the vote nationwide.

Clinton is well aware that he cannot take it for granted that the Democratic Congress will support him. Now that he has staked so much on the battle, he must win the fight to reform the economy – but he knows that, in order to win, he must sell his package himself directly to the people on the states and districts of the members of Congress. He must not simply rally public opinion to his side, but he must then organize that opinion and use it to make the House and Senate vote his way.

And so the President and his entire cabinet have begun what many are calling the campaign of 1993. After one month in office, with false starts, distractions and careless mistakes, the Clinton White House now appears to be up and running. It is as if this Administration has been in hiding, preparing all along for this fight and only this fight.

Since the end of last week, Clinton has had control over the media debate. He has carefully scripted speeches, public appearances, even leaks of what might be in the economic program, so that no news would dominate the press other than the news that came from the White House. While some thought at the time that the various leaks of potentially damaging ideas such as a freeze on Social Security cost of living increases (COLAs) to the elderly were a strategic blunder. But now that the media sees the entire Clinton budget package, without the COLA freezes, Clinton’s strategy seems clear and a winning one: throw out to a hungry press false ideas so that when the real program is unveiled it, by contrast, won’t be so difficult to accept.

The entire script of Campaign ‘93 has been carefully wrought. Last Monday, in a televised address, Clinton appealed to the nation to support his program. Though short on details, the speech nevertheless dominated the news all day Tuesday. It effectively prevented others from taking control of the airwaves, and left the Clinton message on the economy as the only game in town. Everyone was forced to react to Clinton’s message. Further, the Monday speech and the Tuesday coverage of it built intense interest in the Wednesday State of the Union address.

This strategy worked so well that early polls showed that as many people listened to Clinton’s State of the Union Speech as those who watched the National Football League’s championship “the Super Bowl!” (The “Super Bowl” is annually the first- or second-most watched television event in the United States.)

Furthermore, while the polls on Monday night showed that Clinton’s approval rating was 59% and his disapproval rating was 27%, only 48% of the American people thought that new taxes were necessary. But by Wednesday, in flash polls conducted after the State of the Union address, Clinton’s approval rating had risen to 79% (with only 16% disapproving), and 72% agreed with the President that new taxes were necessary.

The State of the Union Speech itself was long, but masterful. It was a little bit of Perot with its economic details and the need for change, and little bit of Reagan with its charismatic appeal to the patriotism of the average American to oppose the big money influence peddlers, lobbyists and do-nothing members of Congress who stood in the way of needed change.

What most analysts noted was how engaging the President appeared to be. Instead of following the normal, almost ritualistic style for a State of the Union address, Clinton ad-libbed, joked, and spoke back to the members of Congress in the Chamber with him. It seemed, at times, more like a session of the British Parliament than the stiff and formal U.S. Congress. The public appeared to appreciate that touch.

And immediately after the Wednesday State of the Union speech, the President and every member of his Administration, with the exception of Warren Christopher, left Washington in an unprecedented effort to take their campaign for support to states across the country. When not traveling to sell their message, they will be using satellite teleconferences with targeted states and telephone conference calls to urge their supporters to get to work on behalf of the President’s program. One observer noted, “Now I understand why and how Clinton picked his cabinet. They are all salesmen and they come from different states so they can take the message back to their people for him.”

The purpose of this enormous effort is simple: to go over the heads of the Congress, the Washington press corps and the lobbyists, to take the President’s case straight to the American people and local media; to build a national consensus in support of the President and his program; and in the process to win the fight over the budget and so define Bill Clinton as the President of the United States.

It must be noted, however, that this all is one large and risky gamble. There are problems with Clinton’s package, and the press and several members of Congress have been quick to point them out. There is skepticism as to whether the plan can be sold, and even whether it will work—no president since Franklin Roosevelt has tried to push a program as ambitious and risky as this one.

Yet Clinton may be willing to take this risk precisely because of its magnitude and because the stakes are so high. If he wins, the new President—who garnered only 43% of the vote in November—will also win tremendous respect nationally.

It is important to note how much is being invested in this effort. The entire apparatus of the Democratic Party, most offices of the White House and all of the leaders of the Administration but one are focused on it. Aware of the risks he is taking, Clinton has pulled every possible lever to make it all work.

The new American President is concerned about the world. But as he noted during the campaign, if the U.S. is weak at home, it cannot provide strong leadership to the world. And so, apparently true to his campaign pledge and because he believes so strongly in the need for fundamental economic reform is the U.S. is regain its domestic strength, he will “focus like a laser” on the economy until he wins. Moreover, Clinton seems to realize the corollary of his campaign statement that in order to provide strong leadership in international affairs, the U.S. President must be strong at home.

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