Selling the Clinton Economic Plan


Washington. -- 10:30 a.m., Wednesday. The Treasury, the neo-classic monolith at 15th and Pennsylvania, next to the White House. Seven of us are shown up to a third floor office. It is decorated with oil landscapes and a framed display of U.S. bank notes and securities. A collection of silver salvers and an open mahogany cutlery box, stacked with silver flatware, are on the sideboard.

A tall, elegant, groomed, gray-haired patrician figure enters. Dark tailored suit, boldly patterned tie, he graciously shakes hands with each of us, his face cracking into fine lines as he smiles, wrinkles fanning from the corner of his eyes. He takes his seat at the head of the conference table, and beckons us to be seated.

Lloyd Bentsen, secretary of the treasury, guardian of the nation's revenues, is about to make the big sell for the Clinton economic program.

12.00 p.m., Wednesday. The Old Executive Office Building, that wedding cake of an architectural colossus at 17th and Pennsylvania, on the other side of the White House. Five of us are escorted up to the third floor. We hang around a waiting room. It smells of fresh paint, applied over the weekend for a new administration. We examine patches of the original, Victorian-rich decoration now preserved under glass on the walls and ceiling.

The original opulent paint job, in deep reds and blue, edged in gold, was applied in an age when government flaunted its power through grandiosity, a far cry from its current lean-and-mean pursuit of economy and efficiency and its obsession with rooting out fraud, waste and abuse.

An inner door opens. A dark-haired, bespectacled figure in shirt sleeves bids farewell to one group of visitors and invites us in. He offers coffee or tea, goes out to place the order, returns, throws a legal pad toward a seat in the middle of the table and sits down.

Leon Panetta, director of the Office of Management and Budget, overseer of the nation's spending, is about the make the big sell of the Clinton economic program.

At meetings like these throughout the week, senior officials have been getting the message out, quietly but effectively, to reporters. The Clinton administration is as convinced as any commercial operation that the sizzle counts as much as the steak in marketing.

The message is the message. The key is repetition. It is the gospel of James Carville, street-wise political guru of the Clinton election and unpaid -- but not unheeded -- White House adviser: know what you want to say and keep on saying it. It's as simple as his campaign mantra: "It's the economy, stupid."

Now it could be: "Happiness equals Shared Sacrifice."

Mr. Clinton is leading the public sales campaign himself with weekly outings to meet the people. Three weeks ago it was Michigan. Two weeks ago it was California. Last week it was New Jersey. This week it is expected to be Texas. Next week somewhere else. You can see his schedulers busily coloring in the map of the nation as he hopscotches across it. By year's end, he will undoubtedly have visited all 48 contiguous states, may even have gone offshore, and will almost certainly be ready to start again. The man is tireless.

In his seven weeks in power, he has visited Congress more times than most presidents have bothered to travel to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in their first terms. Last week he was on Capitol Hill to break bread -- or, to be precise, a Big Mac, which is more to the modern Everyman's taste -- with the Republicans. The previous weeks were devoted to courting the Democrats. No political support has been gained from the GOP, of course, but he earns a grudging admiration for his style.

What he has not done in all this get-out-the-word drive is hold a formal press conference, that inquisitive half hour that can be so revealing of a chief executive, who otherwise is answerable directly to no one between elections. He may have faced more questions from ordinary voters and from members of Congress than most presidents, but he has also set a new record in reluctance to meet the media on the established playing field of the press conference.

Certainly, he banters with reporters at occasional photo opportunities in the White House, which last usually two or three minutes and allow for perhaps one or two hurried questions and just as few brief answers. Mr. Clinton prefers the town meeting format where ordinary voters query him about their concerns. Nothing wrong with that. But the hooks are usually unbarbed, and he slips away as smoothly as a wily old game fish.

The parents of a sick child worry about medical access and bills. It is the cue for a policy sermon on health-care reform. An unemployed middle-aged worker sees a bleak future. It is an invitation for a treatise on industrial retraining. A student worries about college fees. It is the occasion for another outline of his national service initiative. All this is well and good. But it serves no one better than William Jefferson Clinton.

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has clocked her own impressive mileage, concentrating on sounding out her audiences on health care reform, her own portfolio, but always ready to put in a good word for her husband's economic plan. The Clinton cabinet members also have been dispatched around the country to make the essential sales pitch.

And so, back to the Treasury, 10.30 a.m. Wednesday. Lloyd Bentsen is meeting this small group of correspondents from regional papers. Previously, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have had his ear. There is a pecking order to all things in Washington, including the media.

Mr. Bentsen has nothing particularly new to say, but delivers the Clinton message with the assuredness of long years in the political game, the conviction of the convert, and the wry wit of a confident conversationalist. His points are well made. His defense of the Clinton economic numbers, challenged by figures from the Joint Economic Committee, make the wires.

His time has been well spent: The message is again out.

In Mr. Panetta's office, overlooking Lafayette Square, there is an air of bareness. The bookshelves are empty. His personal nicknacks are still in their boxes. There simply hasn't been time to unpack. We are, he notes with amusement, in the original office of the old Secretary of War. It is an appropriate enough setting for his own participation in close-quarter combat with government department heads over their budgets.

He has just finished the appeals process, through which the agency heads try to escape some of his demanded economies. Apparently they got short shrift. The lowered spending figures in the Clinton plan remain firm. Mr. Panetta, who was Congress's most renowned deficit hawk until he was recruited by Mr. Clinton, would probably have liked even deeper program cuts, but politics is politics.

There was the idea, he says, of freezing or delaying the cost-of-living-adjustment on Social Security benefits. The Clinton administration was interested, but it was shot down by influential members of Congress almost before it was floated. The fact is, says the budget director, if more spending cuts are wanted, the obvious place to make them is among retiree benefits. He doubts, however, that the political will is there. He is probably right.

He has not shrunk from administering pain to those in his own office, lowering salary scales one notch. The reporters complain that the White House has made a similar claim but has not produced any salary figures to prove it. Mr. Panetta says he will get the figures out.

By the end of the hour-long briefing, his legal pad is covered with heavy blue-ink doodles, and the reporters' heads are reeling with dollar totals, percentages, decimal points, legislative timetables and the reasons why the administration is right to go for economic stimulus, investment and deficit reduction all at once.

Given the woeful success rate of previous efforts to reduce the deficit while simultaneously growing the economy, was there the possibility that a couple of years from now he would wake up one morning and say, "Oh my God! Where did we go wrong?"

He replies: "I feel a very strong sense of confidence this is the right first step. If we can put that first step in place, I think the country is at least headed in the right direction."

In such private and persuasive encounters as these, the administration tries to shape the press coverage it receives. The net result: the Clinton steak is being served with a lot of sizzle these days.

Gilbert Lewthwaite is a Washington correspondent for The Baltimore Sun.

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