Posted on August 08, 1994 in Washington Watch

President Clinton is in the midst of long and hot crisis-filled summer. He is facing a wide range of challenges, the most important of which threaten his chances for success on some of the most key domestic issues on which he based his presidency: health care, crime and welfare reform.

Throughout the summer, public approval of the President’s performance has followed a downward trend, dropping more than 15 points. It is telling that even in an area where Clinton has had success, the economy, he is receiving little public recognition for his efforts.

The White House continually reminds the press and the public that in less than two years, Clinton has passed a major deficit reduction package, created significant new foreign trade opportunities for U.S. businesses, restored investor confidence in the economy, and overseen an economic resurgence which has created 4,000,000 new jobs , sustained reasonable economic growth while keeping inflation down. Yet despite these achievements, recent polls show that most Americans express disapproval of the President’s handling of the economy, and a plurality even feel that Republicans would do a better job of handling the economy than the President’s Democratic party.

And even lower than the public’s approval of Clinton’s handling of the economy, foreign affairs, health care and crime is their overall approval of the President. The most recent CNN/USA Today polls shows Clinton’s overall approval rating at a low 39%.

Critics correctly point out the President’s contribution to his decline in the polls: a succession of public scandals, disarray at the White House, and the Administration’s penchant for “waffling” on issues. But the single most important reason behind the President’s slide in the polls is a growing cynicism about all government leaders – whether Democrat or Republican – and government in general.

While President Clinton has recently been receiving more favorable press coverage, the constant criticism he has endured during the past two years has taken its toll. So has the incessant partisan sniping that has become the norm in political discourse in Washington. An equally damaging but less noted phenomenon undermining the President is the tone of ridicule which political commentators, newscasters and popular comedians use when discussing our political leaders.

This very same pattern of criticism, partisan sniping and ridicule that weakened George Bush’s presidency. Clinton is the new victim and every fault of his, whether or not it is related to his performance in office, is fair game; although he wouldn’t be exempt even if he were perfect.

The end result of this type of discourse is deep public cynicism which suggests that the U.S. is on a downwards slide, that little can be done to correct “the mess in Washington,” and that “those politicians in Washington” are not capable of doing the job in any case. Ironically, the need to restore hope to a cynical electorate was one of the major themes of Clinton’s campaign. So it is especially hurtful for the President to see his leadership paralyzed by his inability to combat public negativity.

This is more than a morale problem for the White House, however; it is a practical political problem as well. As public cynicism and disrespect for government grows, so does Clinton’s ability to lead and influence legislators to support his programs.

The President has become so politically weak that his very identification with his own programs has become a liability. For example, recent polls show that a clear majority of Americans support the type of health care reform that the President has called for. The public overwhelmingly believes that there should be universal health care coverage for all Americans and that employers should pay to cover their employees – two central features of the President’s program. But when asked if they support the Clinton health care plan, a majority says “no.”

The President’s political weakness not only poses problems for more than just his legislative agenda, but it has political ramifications as well. Several Democratic candidates in this year’s Congressional elections have already advised the White House to “stay away” from their campaigns. This prompted one Democratic party official to state:

“We’re aware that it is not in the best interests of some of our candidates to associate with us [the Clinton Administration] and we understand this… if you want us to stay away, we’ll stay away.

While these comments were, of course, quickly repudiated by the White House, they did reflect a widespread attitude among Democratic leaders and candidates who have come to fear that too close an identification with President Clinton will hurt their electoral chances in November.

The Republican strategy, as indicated by their behavior during the recent voting on the crime bill and the debate over health care in the Senate, is clear: obstruct the President’s efforts to pass any legislation this fall.

The Republicans assume that if they can deny the President any legislative victories, they will even further erode his leadership, which they hope will improve their chances of winning control of Congress in the 1994 elections. In this effort they used stalling tactics and threats against any members of their party who break ranks to support the President.

But the Republican’s success in temporarily derailing the President’s crime bill last week shocked the White House into action. The President has taken some steps to shore up his position, especially in preparation for this fall’s Congressional elections. In his appeal to Democrats to support his position on the legislation, the President correctly observed that he needed Democratic votes “to save my Presidency.” Implicit in this appeal was a recognition that if the President loses the vote on the crime bill and is further weakened, the Democrats’ chances to win their elections this fall will decrease.

In a further effort to restore confidence, the President is engaged in a restructuring of the White House administration team. In this effort he has called on three respected Democratic party leaders: Leon Panetta (who moved from the position of Director of the Office of Management and Budget to become White House Chief of Staff), Tony Coehlo (a former House Majority Whip who was assigned to the Democratic National Committee to assist in planning strategy for the 1994 elections), and Judge Abner Mikva (who will take over as White House Legal Counsel).

It is not clear how immediately these changes in operations will begin to have an effect on White House performance. Nor is it clear that they will succeed soon enough to secure passage of the crime bill and health care reform before the November elections.

What is clear is that the President is emerging from his long hot summer with a “wake-up call” and a determination to fight to save his embattled Presidency.

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