WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has sold himself to the voters, sold a new budget to Congress and sold the idea of "sacrifice" to the American people, but as he prepares for his weekend summit with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, Mr. Clinton is facing a public relations challenge that only a born salesman could relish.
Flying against the strong prevailing public mood, Mr. Clinton is setting out to persuade Americans that at a time of real economic need at home it is in their own economic interests to embark on a course of significant, long-term aid to Russia and the other republics of the former Soviet Union.
The sales pitch starts in earnest at a speech to members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors tomorrow in Annapolis, White House officials said yesterday, and it goes something like this:
The demise of the Soviet Union is making possible huge cuts in America's military defense budget. That money is desperately needed here for education, health, child nutrition, roads, bridges, science, research, transportation and environmental cleanup.
At the same time, the United States must set a portion of that money aside to nurture democracy and free market economies in Russia and the other republics.
If the country doesn't -- and if Russia and the republics ever return to their former hostile ways -- it will cost the United States a hundred times as much money as any aid package would.
"He's got to make the case, and make it patiently," a White House official said. "But it really is as simple as in that old Fram oil filter commercial. 'Pay me now -- or pay me later.' "
It may seem that way to White House officials -- and to Mr. Clinton himself -- but if public opinion surveys and the sentiment of Congress are any guide, the president has a lot of convincing to do.
"My question is, where does this money come from?" a skeptical Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, asked Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher yesterday. "We're going to cut foreign aid again this year. We are in a situation where we're
cutting domestic programs [and] we're raising taxes."
Mr. Christopher and other White House officials, without providing detailed programs, have suggested that the American aid package to be offered in Vancouver, British Columbia -- at least $1 billion worth -- will include housing assistance for demobilized soldiers, loans or grants to help the antiquated Russian oil and gas industry, and increased humanitarian aid for emergency food and medical supplies.
Later in the same Senate subcommittee hearing, Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, told Mr. Christopher that while he realized the United States needs to help Russia, he hoped the administration wasn't proposing to give money directly to the Russian government, a method of assistance that many Republicans simply feel is pouring money down a rathole.
"An awful lot of people on my side of the aisle -- and on the other side, as well -- are going to be concerned about whether or not the money is going to get us anything," Mr. McConnell said.
These senators may have their fingers on the nation's pulse more than the White House -- at least for now.
Public opinion polls have consistently showed that big majorities believe that the United States is giving Russia enough aid already.
Asked in Little Rock Monday about a recent poll that showed almost 75 percent of Americans feel this way, Mr. Clinton replied, "We give a lot more money than we give to Russia to smaller countries. We've got a big interest there [in the former Soviet Union].
"I realize that the responsibility is on me to communicate to the American people any kind of [aid] package I propose -- and to justify it. That's my responsibility, and I intend to assume it."
During the 1992 campaign, millions of voters, often egged on by candidates Patrick J. Buchanan or Ross Perot, settled on foreign aid as precisely the kind of tax money they want the federal government to quit spending.
Public opinion polls are one thing, but in town meeting after town meeting, candidate Bill Clinton heard this sentiment expressed, often with some degree of passion.
"The president has said that part of leading is listening," said dTC George Stephanopoulos, the White House communications director. "But part of leading is teaching, also. The president must show the American people why this is in their long-term, economic interest."
Privately, White House advisers say that an instructive lesson is provided, both a positive lesson and a negative one, by the way President George Bush led the nation during the crisis in the Persian Gulf War.
On the one hand, they are critical of him for not articulating, early and often, exactly why it was in America's interest to boot the Iraqi army out of Kuwait.
On the other hand, they admire Mr. Bush for taking a position that only a minority of Americans agreed with -- interceding militarily in the Persian Gulf -- and sticking with it until he had the public behind him.
Paul Begala, a political consultant to the White House, believes Mr. Clinton is in an ideal position now to do just that.
"I can tell you as a political consultant that people in America trust Bill Clinton to do what's right for the American people on the economy," Mr. Begala said. "Therefore, if he says, 'I've looked at this with your economic interests at heart, and we need to create markets and create jobs over there -- and this will help you and your children,' he can get this done."
"That's the only filter the American people are going to see this through," Mr. Begala added. "Is it good for America?"