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CLINTON, IN SEARCH OF A STYLE President's method of leadership can seem wishy-washy


WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jennings Randolph was in be sleeping peacefully when he and his wife were jolted awake by a midnight phone call. It was from the president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, and he was in a nasty mood.

"Jennings, where is Lady Bird's damn bill?" the president demanded of the West Virginia Democrat.

"Well, Mr. President, there isn't going to be a bill," Senator Randolph stammered. "The House doesn't want it, the. . . ."

"Jennings, there is going to be a bill!" Johnson replied coldly. "It's going to be marked up in the Public Works Committee on Monday, and reported out to the floor on Tuesday. And it's going to pass. Do you understand?"

He did, and the result of this phone call was the Highway Beautification Act of 1965.

Presidential styles

That is one style of presidential leadership: intimidation.

There are others, too, but Bill Clinton has yet to settle on a successful approach that will be remembered years from now as his signature method of leading the nation.

A president can throw his weight around, or he can focus so obsessively on something that he stubbornly wears down his opponents. Sometimes, a president can get what he wants by changing the nation's attitudes with the force of his arguments -- or charm. Or he can simply wield power without regard for the political consequences.

All these approaches have been used successfully in the past, and as he approaches the end of the fourth month of his presidency, Mr. Clinton has shown flashes of all of them. But the style he is most comfortable with is attempting to build coalitions, fashion compromises and slowly establish a national consensus.

This approach worked for him in the governor's mansion in Little Rock, Ark. But it may not work in the White House.

When the president used the word "consensus" to describe what he was seeking with the European allies as a way to stop the slaughter in Bosnia, he ended up being cowed out of following his conscience.

This has had the effect of making Mr. Clinton appear wishy-washy at times.

Last week, in a question-and-answer session, the president reiterated the horrors of "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia and, in tones more appropriate to declaring war, concluded by saying, "Therefore, I have this morning directed Secretary [of State Warren M.] Christopher to continue to pursue his consultations with our allies and friends."

If anything, the president has found that consensus-building is even more difficult here at home. After initially trying to play hardball over his economic package in Congress, Mr. Clinton publicly left the door open to compromise.

Members of Congress quickly began behaving as though this meant that the White House should give in on any regional objection raised to any facet of his tax program. Last week, the president found himself personally negotiating the ins-and-outs of his energy tax with Rep. Bill Brewster, an Oklahoma Democrat who is a freshman on the House Ways and Means Committee.

"His future was in the hands of Bill Brewster," one committee aide said incredulously. "Bill has been here all of three months."

Partly, this is Mr. Clinton's fault. His desire to control every detail, coupled with his incredibly broad agenda has, at times, paralyzed the White House and led to the comparison that Mr. Clinton and his aides most hate to hear.

"The image that keeps coming to mind is Jimmy Carter, who just didn't know the score on Capitol Hill," says William E. Leuchtenburg, a history professor at the University of North Carolina. "He has a kind of 'I-get-no-respect' quality to him."

Mr. Leuchtenburg says the big question is whether Mr. Clinton is simply too undisciplined or whether his predecessors deferred so many problems until now that any occupant of the White House would be overwhelmed.

A multitude of problems

The sheer multitude of problems Mr. Clinton has attempted to tackle in his first four months in office underscores this point. Can any leader really hope -- in his first year, no less -- to nurture democracy in Haiti, end the ethnic slaughter in the former Yugoslavia and ensure that Russia doesn't slide back to totalitarianism?

How about enacting major health care reform, campaign finance reform and welfare reform?

What about creating tax incentives for small businesses, reducing the small business "credit crunch," launching inner-city enterprise zones, solving the problems of over-cutting timber in the Pacific Northwest and providing summer jobs for urban youths?

Then there are his plans to immunize every American youngster, expand preschool for poor children, set national education goals, build a national service program and put 100,000 more police officers on the streets.

All while reducing the government's annual budget deficits.

On all of these things, Mr. Clinton has spent precious time and political capital.

Conscious of how disjointed this might appear, the president claimed last week that a "time-management study" he had ordered showed that he had spent only 2 1/2 hours on the issue of gays in the military.

Narrowing the focus

That may not be the point. Though he was no student of the presidency, Ronald Reagan, perhaps better than any other modern president, intuitively knew that even three hours here and three hours there add up, and that a president could have true influence in only a few areas.

He chose confronting communism, building up the military and cutting taxes as his major initiatives. Even in these areas, he left details to subordinates.

"He didn't [get involved in] most things," recalls Lyn Nofziger, Mr. Reagan's one-time political director. "When something was important to him, though, he just did it."

President Jimmy Carter was ridiculed for his seemingly quixotic fixation on establishing "human rights" as one of the criteria for whether a foreign nation is a friend or foe of the United States. This policy is now part of the fabric of U.S. foreign policy, embraced by Republicans and Democrats, and one of Mr. Carter's most lasting legacies.

In conducting the Persian Gulf war, President George Bush helped ease 1,000 years of suspicion in the Arab world that Western troops, once on Arabian soil, would never leave. While Mr. Clinton asked his foreign policy advisers for "options," Mr. Bush simply asked for "a plan," one foreign policy official noted.

Interestingly, in at least one area, Mr. Clinton has taken this bold approach -- his dealings with Russia. The president personally called foreign leaders to tell them that Russia needed more Western aid -- and needed it fast.

Mr. Clinton also ignored both opinion polls and nay-sayers in Congress and scheduled an early summit with President Boris N. Yeltsin, promised $1.6 billion in Russian aid before being sure where all the money was coming from and gave a speech at Annapolis outlining for the American people why helping Russia was in their own interests.

One reason Mr. Clinton hasn't done this more often is his passion to master the details of every single issue -- and then to exercise tight control over what is said and done about it in his administration.

History also suggests another reason why a president must pick his shots: The opportunity a president has to accomplish anything doesn't last long. Four years sounds like a long time, but the first year is really when the heavy lifting must be done.

"The presidents who have had big strikes -- Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and, arguably, Ronald Reagan -- did it early," said Bruce Buchanan, professor of government at the University of Texas. "The coalition of opposing minorities grows with each day, and a president's window of opportunity . . . closes quickly."

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