President Clinton is out in the country trying to avoid having a famous "bump in the road" turn into a highway cave-in that would engulf his economic strategy. It is not a happy time for the nation's new leader. He finds himself scrambling to avoid the unraveling of his package plan for reinvesting in America and holding down the size of the deficit now that his political foes sense weakness and disarray in the administration.
It might have been otherwise if Mr. Clinton had kept his focus on fixing the long-range economy. After inauguration, he was riding high in the polls and even the business community was making encouraging noises. But then he made the mistake of making a big deal of a minor jobs-stimulus plan that fudged his deficit-fighting image and enabled his Republican foes to hand him an early defeat. The result: His far more important five-year package is in trouble, and the current lull in the recovery is laid at the White House doorstep.
The president is responding with a populist assault on lobbyists and other Washington types. He contends that his tax proposals are "fair" and a justified comeuppance for those who made "a killing" in the Reagan-Bush era. Perhaps more important, he is sticking to his belief that an array of domestic issues must be dealt with as a whole, not singly or simplisticly. Reform of the tax system, reshuffling of domestic investment priorities and revolutionary changes in the delivery and financing of health care head the president's list.
Mr. Clinton is too good a politician not to know his ability to manipulate the economy is very limited even if he is held accountable for every blip in consumer confidence or in the index of leading indicators. He also is too good a politician not to know that the legislative process will soon force his political opponents to come up with feasible alternatives if they try to scrap his ideas. Those who offer such alternatives then leave themselves open to the charge, already hitting the president, that tax boosts or cuts in federal spending act as a damper on the economy, at least in the short run. It is Washington's most intractable conundrum.
After a floundering start in office, Mr. Clinton still has a chance to gain mastery of the situation. But he is plainly rattled and far from focused in dealing with everything from Bosnia to the domestic economy. Perhaps campaign-like appearances in the heartland will restore the public support he has lost since January, but being president is a lot different from running for president. He has to display a greater ability to deal effectively with Congress and handle his foreign policy agenda than he has shown so far.
Senate Republican leader Bob Dole was correct in labeling Mr. Clinton's defeat on the insignificant jobs stimulus bill just a "bump in the road." One wonders what he would call the loss of the president's economic package or a poor reception for his health care reforms or much bombast with little accomplished in the Balkans.