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BACK TO THE ISSUES AND UP TO SPEED Clinton regains his balance after a rough 2 weeks

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is re-emerging this week as a politician doing what he likes best, addressing the issues that matter most to voters with the players who can do something about them.

In a week of political discussions, Mr. Clinton has met with members of Congress three times, lunching with them once on Capitol Hill. His fourth meeting will be today with the Democratic leadership. He also has talked twice with the nation's governors, dining with them in the White House.

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Those meeting have addressed in short order the economy, Medicaid, welfare, campaign finance and electoral reform.

Mr. Clinton told congressional Democrats yesterday that he wants to pass a bill on campaign finance reform early this year, although he indicated that the changes might not take effect until after the 1994 elections.

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Mr. Clinton pointed to legislation vetoed last year by President George Bush as a starting point for discussing campaign finance. Democrats passed that plan knowing it would be vetoed and are approaching the issue more cautiously this year.

Today, Mr. Clinton will return to the economy in his discussions with lawmakers.

His efforts have made an impression on Capitol Hill.

"Our leaders keep on briefing us on all these meetings, and we seem to get briefings every day," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.

"I have never seen this before, such a close relationship. I think he has shown by his past conduct that he is a very intense person who will keep the momentum going. He is never going to stop. He is just going to keep on going."

After two weeks during which events appeared to control him, Mr. Clinton is now clearly in control. His crowded agenda this week has quickly distanced him from last week's furor over gays in the military and the previous week's political embarrassment over the withdrawal of his nominee for attorney general, Zoe Baird.

Now Mr. Clinton is focusing on the economy, getting second and third opinions on how he should shape his stimulative package, where he should raise taxes and how he should cut spending.

"He is good at it. He is very good at it as a matter of fact," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who is vice chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. "He likes doing this work; that's very clear."

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Mr. Sarbanes said Mr. Clinton appeared to be striking "a happy medium" between the overloaded agenda of President Jimmy Carter and the one-issue-at-a-time approach of President Ronald Reagan.

"I think Congress is very anxious to work closely with the president. We don't want gridlock," said Mr. Sarbanes, noting that three of the issues addressed by Mr. Clinton this week -- health care, welfare and the economy -- are interrelated and needed to be coordinated to reduce the deficit.

The broad outline of Mr. Clinton's economic package is known: a goal of cutting about $145 billion from the deficit by fiscal 1997 and an immediate $31 billion stimulus to create jobs.

Mr. Clinton is fine-tuning, waiting until the last minute, as he usually does, to adapt his package to prevailing conditions.

Meanwhile, he is consulting with his advisers and political peers to form a consensus he is comfortable with and which the voters will find acceptable.

"Certainly, his pattern in Arkansas was one of working very hard to cultivate good relations with the Legislature, so it is not surprising he is doing that here," said David Mason, who watches the president for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

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"In fact, the only surprise is why he didn't do it earlier and more effectively, and why there were these missteps.

"I have to put a large part of it down to inexperience on the part of Clinton and his staff. This town is a lot different to operate in than Little Rock. . . . If he can stay in control and move forward from here, then his very rough first two weeks will probably be forgotten."

Administration officials say the Clinton team's introduction to power has been an overall success, with the Cabinet up and operating except for an attorney general, the White House almost fully staffed and the president moving quickly to fulfill major campaign promises by lifting abortion restrictions, introducing tough ethical standards, finding a compromise on the gays-in-the-military issue and pushing firmly ahead on other major policy fronts.

The sense of growing momentum will be strengthened in coming days as Congress passes and sends to the Oval Office the family-leave bill, which will be the first piece of legislation to get the signature of William Jefferson Clinton, and as Mr. Clinton carries his message to the nation next week with a town meeting that will be televised from Detroit and will link him with audiences in Atlanta, Miami and Seattle.

"The obvious point is that he has kind of got extricated from the tar baby of the gays-in-the-military issue," said Stephen Boaz, political specialist at the free-market Cato Institute.

"These weekly updates on the state of the presidency may be a little bit too much micromanagement. We are starting a four-year presidency, and I am not sure a week up or a week down is ultimately going to be a very good indicator."

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One minor indicator of the increased control being exercised by the White House was the cancellation this week of the live broadcast of communications director George Stephanopoulos' daily briefing.

The reason: In the first two weeks the popular impression of what was happening inside the White House was formed by the confrontation between the press and the White House spokesman.

That not only detracted from the image of confident leadership Mr. Clinton had wanted to project, but actually contributed to the impression of an administration facing problems.

"It seemed to me that for several days it was almost as though we had no president. He seemed to have disappeared from the screen, like a blip gone from the radar screen," said William E. Leuchtenberg, professor of history at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and a student of the presidency.

It took just eight days for the White House to decide it was better public relations to limit the cameras' access to staged photo opportunities with Mr. Clinton than to allow them to record the daily squabbling in the press briefing room.



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