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Does a President Matter That Much?


Does presidential leadership make a difference for grass-rootsAmerica, how we run our states and counties, cities and neighborhoods?

If you doubt it, recall Ronald Reagan's message: that government is the problem and not the solution. Mr. Reagan legitimized and popularized tax revolts and spending caps on state and local governments coast to coast.

So what would happen next in 50 states and thousands of communities, if Bill Clinton were to win the presidency? Would the use of government, as a legitimate means to serve public purpose, be back in vogue? In the year of public cynicism, in the wake of Ross Perot's guerrilla attack on political normalcy, is the nation finally ready to move beyond the Reaganesque prescription?

Some of what Mr. Clinton says would make you think so. Consider the Democratic nominee's words in his acceptance speech: "George Bush, if you won't use your power to help America . . . I will."

Parse Mr. Clinton's statements (as the Republicans are sure to do) and you find a raft of "big government" initiatives: support for universal health insurance, expanded child care, an indexed minimum wage, more spending on transportation, the environment and more.

But there's another side to his pitch. The government Mr. Clinton says he's for would be "leaner, not meaner." He attacks bureaucracy, he talks up citizen "empowerment." He urges a "New Covenant" based on mutual responsibility, a balance of rights and obligations.

In contrast to the every-man-for-himself individualism that accompanied the Reagan-Bush years, Mr. Clinton invokes a communitarian spirit.

He encourages inclusiveness, engaging the skills and loyalties of people of all colors and backgrounds. He declares: "We don't have a person to waste."

With its religious overtones, its reaching out, its insistence on mutual obligation, the Clinton philosophy is sure to find some resonance -- even in a cynical, turned-off nation. Indeed, it may be a message we've secretly been waiting to hear.

If this Arkansan gets elected, he's sure to be preaching the idea that government is "us," not some enemy, that setting common agendas and assuring equity is legitimately public business for which government is indispensable. If he succeeded in selling that message to broad segments of the American people, the impact on lingering Reaganism would be massive.

But that path is strewn with obstacles. Both the federal and state governments are strapped. It's exceedingly tough to launch new initiatives, to demonstrate government's capacity, in times when public coffers are bare and new taxes are religiously resisted.

With Mr. Clinton there is sure to be pressure to invent new ways to help state and local government achieve more.

Examples would be loosened federal mandates, carrot-and-stick funding, federal support of young people working in local social service or community policing to pay off college loans.

On the management side, Governor Clinton is a fan of author David Osborne's ideas of "Reinventing Government" for the '90s -- the idea that government should "steer, not row," take responsibility for seeing that vital public goals are achieved but not feel obliged to do it all with its own bureaucracy.

Mr. Clinton would endorse voluntarism -- citizens giving time to pick up the slack when local governments run out of cash. But he'd likely reject the idea (implicit in President Bush's Points of Light philosophy) that adequately paid and trained public work forces are somehow expendable. If volunteers, however well-intentioned, define which services are delivered and which neglected, the public purpose is imperiled.

Mr. Clinton supports grass-roots-generated development initiatives -- community-development corporations, community banks, local health, public safety and elderly services. In socially shattered neighborhoods, they are the new forms of community he champions.

But a President Clinton would inherit the most perplexing legacy of the Reagan-Bush years: growing poverty in disinvested inner-city and rural areas. National tax and income-transfer policies have not only enriched the rich and imperiled the middle class, they have intensified poverty for the jobless and working poor.

It's fine to laud community empowerment and self-sufficiency, notes New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Thomas Downs. But "if a community or a center city suffers a real decline in income, if it loses its growth potential, nothing's left to invest in community businesses and community services."

The problem is real, and won't be solved by harping on the needs of the middle class, as Mr. Clinton did in his acceptance speech. The nation will require new tax and income-redistribution policies that complement community rebuilding in our wounded neighborhoods.

Finding the means, and the political will, to do that will be extremely difficult even if new aid is tied to mutual responsibility on the recipients' part. Even a pro-government president will find it a daunting task.

Neal R. Peirce writes a syndicated column on state and urban affairs.

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