This originally appeared in Newsday on May 2, 1993
IN A MOMENT of reflection after the defeat of a jobs bill tht was a pillar of his economic program. President B ill Clinton seemed to have grapsped one of the difficulties gnawing at his young administration: "I do think that I may have overextended myself, and we've got to focus on big thing."
So what did the president tell two conventions just days afterward? That he would home in on the budget. And tax incentives for business. And infrastructure. And health care and education and technology. And "reinventing government," campaign finance and lobbying reform. And national service. And extension of the low-income housing tax credit. And "enhanced recision authority." And, yes, aid to the emerging Russian democracy.
The November election was a choice between a president who was badly adrift and a challenger - Clinton - who tantalized voters with his bold vision for shaking off economic lethargy and reinvigorating the national spirit.
Overextended but Not Aimlesss
One hundred days into his term, Clinton is a president who is not aimless, but overstretched and lacking a coherent strategy for achieving his goals. Incoherence and inexperience have prevented Clinton from delivering on his promise of "an explosive, 100-day action period" to start his tenure. What the president needs now is an explosive second hundred days.
He must move immediately to reinforce the weak legs of his administration and clear his legislative agenda of all but the most crucial items - the deficit and the economy, Russian aid and perhaps one or two other less complex matters, like passage of the Brady Bill for handgun control. He must dispel the growing impression that he's being held back by an irritable relationship with Congress, a reflexive tendency toward old-style liberalism and his own compulsion to become too deeply immersed in everything that goes on around him.
Clinton's grand vision remains correct: to reduce the federal budget deficit and spur public and private investment so as to promote economic growth and competitiveness. To move in a more liberal, accepting direction on social issues after years of rigid and sometimes mean-spirited actions promoted by the Republican right. To exert American leadership abroad without turning the nation into the world's policeman.
And, despite the bobbling and damage control that has preoccupied the Clinton White House, the vision of the young, energetic Arkansan has caught hold. The debate has changed from whether Washington will dare act, to how to do it.
Can He Learn From His Mistakes?
Yes, Clinton wants to move the country in the right direction. But does he have the political acuity to take it there? Or is he so ambitious, so cocksure, so convinced of his own ability and the correctness of his ideas that he will fail to learn from the mistakes he's made? Are he and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, convinced they can run the nation the way they ran Arkansas - largely alone, and on the strength of their own ideas and strong wills? Was the defeat of the jobs bill merely the result of partisan muscle-flexing by Republicans - or does it hint at a feeling on Capitol Hill that Clinton and his youthful White House team are arrogant with lawmakers who, in some cases, have more experience, expertise and historical knowledge than the new president?
Many of Clinton's difficulties stem from one source: For all the detailed, grandiose policy plans laid out during the campaign, for all the study groups and cluster teams that toiled during the transition, Clinton's administration was woefully ill-prepared to take over the government.
This is partly the result of the Democrats' 12-year exile from the White House. But some of it is the by-product, a dangerous one, of Clinton's insular style. The president is gregarious and known for late-night telephone calls to a network of business, political and academic friends. Meetings aren't closely held sessions among a few, but freewheeling discussions of two dozen or more. Yet for all the appearance of openness, Clinton and his wife hold decision-making closely, trusting few, if any, others.
Time and again, congressional sources and others who deal with the administration complain they can't get decisions or answers to policy questions because there is either no one in place at an executive agency to decide - or because the person in charge of that policy area hasn't been given the authority to decide.
The most visible and unacceptable result of this decision-making structure, with the Clintons at the top but virtually no one of stature below, has been the abominable pace of presidential appointments. Clinton has just 45 members of his government confirmed and every department is virtually empty of decision makers below the cabinet secretary. Secretaries haven't been allowed to name appointees without White House review and approval - and without meeting a litmus test for ethnic, gender and geographic diversity. This madness must stop. The most elemental function of a government leader is to put together a government. Clinton must change his appointments process now and trust his cabinet members to choose diverse and talented staffers on their own.
Postpone Action on Health Care
Likewise, he's got to ease the overload on himself, his staff and key committees. It's called setting priorities. It is crucial for Clinton to put off introducing his massive health-care overhaul until after Congress completes work on the tax and spending program that is the key to deficit reduction. Postponing action on health won't be an admission of defeat or the breaking of a campaign pledge, since Clinton is devising a plan.
It would be an acknowledgement of fact: The Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, which must handle all the tax legislation and the Medicare and Medicaid proposals in Clinton's budget as well as the broader health measure, simply can't do it all before year's end. What's more, since Clinton's health plan is expected to include a massive tax hike to pay for expanded coverage, it will collide directly with the $ 272 billion in taxes that are proposed for deficit reduction. With lawmakers squeamish about voting for more taxes of any kind, why jeopardize health reform by allowing the debate to degenerate into a fight over tax hikes?
Everyone on Capitol Hill realizes these two issues can't be handled in tandem. Everyone at the White House, including the president and the first lady, should, too.
Paring the legislative agenda will allow Clinton to define himself more clearly and be seen as a leader who can set priorities. This, in turn, would help clarify another murky aspect of his tenure. Is he a "new Democrat," determined to forge a new social and economic policy that is different from both tax-and-spend liberalism and laissez-faire Republicanism? Or is he all too eager to slip into reflexive, old-style liberalism to placate pet constituencies and his own sense of morality? We have seen too much of the latter in Clinton's first three months, particularly in the defeated stimulus bill that included social spending masquerading as job-creation programs.
It's time Clinton harked back to his own economic address - the high-water mark of his young presidency - and its call for restraint and shared sacrifice.
Clinton Has Changed Washington
It was just two years ago that then-White House chief of staff John Sununu proclaimed that the Bush administration needn't pass a single piece of additional legislation to be considered successful. Now, the question that drives the capital is not whether there should be action, but what kind. The budget deficit hung over the city like a black shroud beneath which no one dared peek. Now, the debate isn't over whether there is sufficient political courage to take dramatic action to fight the deficit but over how to do it. Just a few months ago, the health-care crisis was a subject for think-tank conferences; now it's a national preoccupation.
Clinton is indeed moving the nation ahead. But he is shuffling and sidestepping, giving the impression of confusion and indecision. He must act now to steady his gait if he is to lead us where he wants to go.