After shaky start, Clinton's playing a winning hand In 9th week, president is bolstered by foreign and domestic successes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- He came to office with only 43 percent of the popular vote, questions about his "character" still ringing in his ears. He was slow to appoint key people, took three tries to get an attorney general, and infuriated the military with his plan to lift the ban on gays.

Yet, in his ninth week in the White House, President Clinton is turning up aces everywhere. He appears to have rolled Congress on his economic package, has tiptoed his way through several potential foreign policy crises, and is handling the media as though they were his personal plaything.

He has even been lucky. Less than three months into office, he'll have an opportunity to be the first Democratic president in 26 years to appoint a Supreme Court justice, following the recent retirement of Justice Byron R. White.

But mostly, Mr. Clinton has been a tireless advocate for his own cause -- someone who has made his own breaks.

"He gets an A-plus as a salesman," said Republican Kenneth Duberstein, White House chief of staff in the Reagan administration. "And he's clearly hit a vein with the American people."

Mr. Duberstein says that whether this good feeling will last depends, ultimately, on whether the public likes what Mr. Clinton is selling.

"For now, though, he has connected with people," Mr. Duberstein added.

"He stumbled at the start, but he has gotten his economic message across. People think he is trying and is someone who cares about them."

As George Bush discovered, all of this can go bad in a hurry. A year and a half into his tenure, Mr. Bush had much higher approval ratings than Mr. Clinton does now.

The new president's advisers say they understand this. They also say that, ultimately, they realize Mr. Clinton will be judged on how the economy performs over four years.

In the meantime, evaluating a new president is a subjective undertaking. Does he look "presidential" when standing side-by-side with foreign leaders? Does he sound knowledgeable at news conferences? Does he deal effectively with Congress? Does he come across as a president whom folks just plain like?

Right now, at least, the answer to all these questions appears to be yes.

Even lawmakers who are less than thrilled with Mr. Clinton's policies give him credit for the administration's close ties to Capitol Hill.

"They're very communicative, and they return your phone calls immediately," said Rep. Don Edwards of California, who feuded with the last Democratic president, Jimmy Carter.

"People like [Attorney General] Janet Reno and [budget director] Leon Panetta are very available."

But dealing with Congress is only one part of the job. Mr. Clinton and his advisers believe that public relations are just as important. That's the theory behind Mr. Clinton's weekly out-of-town jaunts, and the mind-set of the administration's tightly controlled press operation.

Mr. Clinton waited eight weeks -- until things were going his way -- to hold a full-blown news conference.

It seems to have paid off: Almost all the reviews were positive. Even opponents seem to appreciate his impressive body of knowledge.

"He's got an awful lot stored up here," House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel said last week, tapping his head.

"He's smart."

The day after the news conference, in an interview with CBS' Dan Rather, Mr. Clinton was even more impressive.

Mr. Rather, who had all but been banned from the White House because of what Republicans considered his liberal sympathies and rank rudeness, looked happy to be back. Mr. Clinton looked as if he were showing off a home he had lived in for eight years instead of eight weeks.

Expressing awe of some of the greats who had preceded him in the White House, Mr. Clinton demonstrated a detailed knowledge of the history of the building, and he sounded poignant, even mystical, when he described looking out at night from his second-floor room toward the Jefferson Memorial and seeing the light that always shines on the noble statue of Jefferson inside.

"I've been up there at 1:30 at night," the president said quietly, "and walked out on the porch that Harry Truman built, just thinking about problems and wishing that Thomas Jefferson could come alive and talk to me about them."

It made great television. But as warm as Mr. Clinton came across, none of it would have mattered if the two substantive issues of the week had gone badly.

Those were two of the most crucial events of Mr. Clinton's early tenure: the passage of his economic plan through Congress and the evident survival, at least for now, of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

Despite the misgivings of some aides, Mr. Clinton, after hesitating at first, strongly backed Mr. Yeltsin when the Russian president was challenged by his Congress. Even before Mr. Yeltsin's troubles, Mr. Clinton had concluded that he needed to fashion a more ambitious package of aid to Russia than most Americans would probably favor.

"We've got to make this thing work over there -- we've got to do it," said White House political adviser Paul Begala.

"It's going to be hard. It's going to require all of [Mr. Clinton's] salesmanship."

At the same time, it was showdown time in Congress over Mr. Clinton's budget proposals.

He had staked everything on an economic package that reverses a campaign pledge to give a tax break to the middle class, reorients national spending priorities to traditional Democratic concerns such as job training and pre-school programs for poor children, and begins attacking the huge U.S. budget deficit.

The White House touted this package as "bold."

Congress found much in it to criticize.

Some believe it takes too much from defense. Others insist that the "deficit-reduction" component is too paltry. Even Democrats who supported Mr. Clinton think that with the economy rebounding, Mr. Clinton's $16.3 billion "stimulus package" to create new jobs with government money is unnecessary.

White House lobbyists -- and Mr. Clinton himself -- debated these points one-by-one with recalcitrant Democrats, who hold majorities in both houses of Congress. In the end, however, they relied on a more time-honored argument -- party loyalty.

This worked.

After the Senate tabled an effort by conservatives to water down Mr. Clinton's plan Wednesday in a virtual party-line vote (52 to 47), North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms noted that the "whip has been cracked."

He meant it as a tweak of his colleagues, but at the White House this comment was appreciated. After losing control of the gays-in-the-military issue early on, the White House political strategists wanted to create a climate in which there is a cost to Democrats of bucking the president.

The White House knew better than to chortle, though. After bullying fence-sitting senators and House members in private, the president was gracious in public.

In a phone conversation with Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell and Sen. Jim Sasser, a key ally, Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore thanked the two senators and gave them much of the credit.

The senators replied that Mr. Gore's visits to the Hill and Mr. Clinton's phone calls had helped immensely.

"I'll have a list of people for you to call on the [next budget-related bill]," Mr. Mitchell said.

"We're ready to go," Mr. Clinton quipped. "Give us our next assignment."

Several White House advisers said they believed Mr. Clinton's willingness to share the credit was key.

"He doesn't give a hoot who gets the credit," said White House communications director George Stephanopoulos.

"He just wants his economic package . . . to pass."

In a separate interview, another presidential adviser added: "If the economic package works . . . or if the economy is strong by 1996, no matter what the reason, Bill Clinton will get all the credit he needs -- he'll win re-election."

Before they get ahead of themselves, however, a couple of caveats are in order.

One comes from Martin C. Anderson, a Hoover Institution fellow and a domestic policy adviser for President Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Anderson, a conservative economist, gives Mr. Clinton high marks for selling his plan and routing the Republican opposition.

"But his numbers don't add up," Mr. Anderson said.

"He's front-loaded the tax increases, and back-loaded the cuts -- and most of 'em don't even come until the fifth year, when he may not be in office!"

The other caveat comes in the survey numbers of those ubiquitous public opinion polls.

Yes, Mr. Clinton's approval rating is climbing slightly, nearing 60 percent in most polls.

And yes, Hillary Rodham Clinton is even higher -- 61 percent in a recent Roper Poll.

But who is that way up there with a 66 percent favorable rating?

Who else?

It's Ross Perot.

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