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Too Harsh A Light?


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TOO HARSH A LIGHT?

It was a powerful speech, and one of the few moments that evoked genuine emotion in Bill Clinton's frenetic foreign tour. Until that windy day in Normandy, much of his European trip had been a numbing succession of ritual images--Clinton posing with the Pope, waving from the deck

of the royal yacht Britannia, and sending an awkward salute to sailors on board the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington.

But on June 6, the President, whom many military veterans malign as Too-Slick-To-Serve, addressed a crowd of D-Day survivors gathered at Normandy's American Cemetery. There was scarcely a dry eye as he declared: "We are the children of your sacrifice." The tribute drew praise even from hardened Clinton-bashers--and sighs of relief from White House aides, who had long fretted about the trip.

Unfortunately, Clinton's European journey couldn't be extended indefinitely. As the President headed home on June 8, he was confronted by his own private Omaha Beach: A landscape dotted with political land mines and bristling with partisan barbed wire.

With his legislative program stalled and his foreign policy under attack, Clinton has returned to confront the enigma of his Presidency: The economy is growing. America is at peace. Last year, he clawed out big victories on the budget and trade, won family-leave legislation, and cut taxes for the working poor. He has twice vanquished the mighty gun lobby by gaining restrictions on pistols and assault weapons.

Yet a majority of Americans now feel dissatisfied with Bill Clinton's Presidency. In an early June Gallup poll taken for USA Today/CNN, only 46% of respondents approved of his job performance--a five-point dip in just two weeks. "He has accomplishments of major dimensions--for which he gets no credit," says Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. "The good that he does gets overlooked because there's a constant referendum on him as a person. And he engenders incredibly strong emotions."

If Clinton's predicament were simply a matter of fleeting public unease, he could afford to worry less and enjoy the privileges of office more. But the President has complicated his problems with an unfocused, frat-house management style and a fumble-prone staff.

What's more, the news in the weeks leading up to the European trip was dismal: rising interest rates, a sexual harassment suit, yet another Arkansas chum--White House aide W. David Watkins--ousted in an ethics flap. All this as tensions were escalating with North Korea over efforts to dismantle its nuclear program (page 58).

Lately, some of Clinton's remarks have had a wounded tone. And he has ample reason to sound besieged. On key fronts, his Presidency seems shaky. Among them:

-- The character issue. Convinced that an impersonal society has weakened family ties, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been conducting a running sermon on what the First Lady calls "a crisis of the spirit." But the steady stream of allegations about Clinton's personal conduct has reached a critical point, analysts say. The resulting furor is doubly devastating: It undermines the President's ability to be a moral beacon and distracts voters from seeing his achievements. "Character issues have become more important in judging politicians, and that's where Clinton has a problem," says Alan Secrest, a Democratic pollster. White House aides counter that such woes are not unique to Clinton. "There's disgust with all politicians," says one.

Perhaps. But Clinton's character problems do seem endless. Special counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr. continues to probe the Whitewater matter. And Clintonites concede the likelihood of future "bimbo eruptions." Says a top adviser: "The problem isn't our legislative [record], it's the character issue."

-- Foreign policy drift. For months, support for the President's handling of foreign affairs has been declining. Whether the issue has been driving out Haiti's military rulers, ending the slaughter in Bosnia, curbing China's human-rights abuses, or breaking the nuclear impasse with North Korea, Clinton's pattern has been familiar: threaten tough measures, agonize, then back off. His latest somersault is typical: The White House abruptly abandoned its comprehensive "framework" approach to liberalizing trade with Japan in favor of limited sectoral talks.

The result has been a perception among foreign leaders that the young President lacks foreign policy moorings. "Clinton's positions have changed," says House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind). "He's struggling with the whole problem of intervention. He does not define with precision or articulate the national interest...but he has got to do it."

One problem is Clinton's belief that in the post-cold war era, economic competition overshadows national-security concerns. Another is the conviction of Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake that mushy multilateralism is the only kind of intervention the U.S. public will accept. "Clinton doesn't want to be the foreign policy President," says one adviser. "But he fails to see that, even though people don't care about Bosnia, they care a lot when the U.S. seems incapable of handling foreign problems."

-- Capital gridlock. Could 1994, which is expected to produce little more than a diluted version of health reform, stand as the high-water mark of Bill Clinton's term? The possibility is rising as resistance to Clinton's agenda builds.

Democrats have lost every key election since 1992, and polls are picking up signs of major midterm GOP gains in November. Republicans hope to take 25 House seats--and have an outside shot at winning the Senate. When the dust settles, the Administration's plans to complete its "public investment" agenda could be history.

With an anti-Democrat tide rising, "the next two years are going to be the toughest of Clinton's Presidency," says Steven E. Schier, a Carleton College political scientist. Groans Democratic analyst Ted Van Dyk: "How on earth will he get anything done?"

By now, the three-year-old economic expansion should have lofted Clinton well past these dangers. No dice. With white-collar layoffs rampant and job insecurity high, the good economic numbers are masking an underlying anxiety over the economy. John E. Silvia, chief economist at Chicago-based Kemper Financial Services Inc., says the reasons include shock at rising interest costs and puny wage packages. Now, slowing economic growth is adding to the worries.

Adversity is nothing new to Bill Clinton, of course. In the long run, the same business cycle that carried him to victory two years ago, coupled with a weak field of Republican Presidential contenders, could mean he'll still be jogging around the White House well after November, 1996. But if he is to weather the storms to come, he will have to bolster the buckling pillars of his White House--and pronto. The question now: Will Clinton again indulge in his do-it-yourself impulses? Or will he call in some experienced contractors to lend him a hand?

PRESIDENTIAL ANGST

Approaching the midpoint of his first term, some key pillars of the Clinton Presidency are shaky:

Economic Jitters

A surging economy, which has created 3 million jobs, has been Clinton's strong suit. But growth has slowed sharply, and interest-rate hikes are roiling markets. The key question for Clinton: Can the expansion last until '96?

Muddled Moral Authority

The Whitewater affair, Hillary Rodham Clinton's sweetheart commodities deals, the Paula Jones lawsuit, and ethical lapses by Arkansas cronies have taken a toll. All contribute to "character" concerns about Bill Clinton. The upshot: The President's ability to sermonize about America's crisis of values has been damaged.

Free-Floating Foreign Policy

Clinton's flip-flops on Bosnia, Haiti, and China have unsettled Americans. Allies worry that the pattern of bluster and retreat might encourage Third World despots. Yet the President remains unwilling to shake up his visionless team of foreign policy advisers.

Fading Legislative Clout

Clinton rode into Washington pledging to end gridlock. And he blitzed through a strong freshman year, winning uphill victories on the budget and the North American Free Trade Agreement. But this year, Clinton has met with fierce partisan opposition. Now, experts predict a bloodbath for Democrats in November. The result could be policy paralysis for the rest of the President's term.Lee Walczak, with Susan B. Garland, Richard S. Dunham, and Owen Ullmann, in Washington


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