CLEVELAND -- Trying to recapture the magic that took him to the White House, President Clinton journeyed to the heartland yesterday to bash Washington and its lobbyists as the enemies of the change he was elected to deliver.
In two rambling, campaign-style speeches, Mr. Clinton defended at some length virtually every domestic program he backs and denounced his opponents as "preachers of pessimism in our nation's capital."
"Now the lobbyists are lining the corridors of Washington as never before. There are about 80,000 of them there," the president told a crowd of perhaps 1,000 business and civic leaders at a Cleveland City Club luncheon. "And unless all the American people speak out loud and clear, it's going to be hard for us to hold this program together."
The president's goal was clear: He was trying to revive his image as the agent of change and progress by trotting out all his favorite themes from last year's campaign, while freshening them up with anti-Washington diatribes borrowed from Ross Perot.
Whether this plunge back into campaigning after 110 days as president will reverse Mr. Clinton's slide in opinion polls remains to be seen. The president's political advisers clearly think the public will buy Mr. Clinton's bash-the-Beltway strategy.
"This is a whole lot more like the real America than Washington is," said Paul Begala, a Clinton political adviser, outside the Cleveland rally. "This is where his strength comes from. This is where his roots are."
The public response to Mr. Clinton was friendly but restrained.
Echoing his critics, Mr. Clinton noted at the outset of his luncheon speech that "the challenges of the moment require both a focus and a discipline on the big problems of our nation," but there was neither focus nor discipline in the speech that followed.
The president explained and defended, in turn, his programs to cut deficits, invest in social programs, spur undeveloped areas, promote education, overhaul the student loan program, reform welfare, boost the earned income tax credit, restructure health care and reform the laws on campaign financing and lobbying.
Along the way he also touched on topics ranging from the Rural Electrification Administration to national service and trimming the White House staff.
Mr. Clinton's lack of focus was perhaps most evident in passages such as this: "I knew when I got there it wasn't going to happen overnight. I tried to make it happen overnight. I've been criticized for doing more than one thing at once.
"I've always felt -- can you do one thing at once? Can you do -- wouldn't it be nice if all you had to do was go to work and not take care of your family? Wouldn't it be nice if you could pay the bills and not earn any money to pay them? I don't understand this whole -- you can't do one thing at once. But anyway, that's what they say."
Mr. Clinton defended his economic plans as fair. He promised that his program for reforming health care would lower costs for millions of Americans, cut waste and "stabilize the rate of increase for everybody else."
He also defended his proposals on campaign financing and lobbying as essential to his other programs, saying, "To get economic reform, you're going to have to have political reform."
That was his way of tying all of his proposals back to his major theme of the day -- that 80,000 lobbyists and other Washington insiders are threatening to block his ability to deliver changes the public demands.