WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's approach to the searing controversy over timber in the Pacific Northwest is a classic distillation of the strengths and weaknesses the new president has displayed in his first five months in the White House.
On the one hand, Clinton has shown optimism and aggressiveness by his willingness to confront a complex and vexing problem that has resisted solution for years. He believes with good reason that he was elected to effect change, and he believes that activist government has an obligation to deal with the most difficult problems, whether they be national or regional, where only federal intervention seems to offer any hope of a solution.
On the other hand, he has found the issue far more intractable than he apparently expected when he showed so much confidence about finding a solution during the 1992 campaign and at his much-advertised "timber summit" in April. In short, he has been once again caught up in the hubris he clearly felt as he took office.
The pattern is very much like those he has followed in confronting other issues since he took office -- issues as broad as his jobs-stimulus program and as narrow as the question of whether homosexuals should be allowed to serve in the military.
On the face of it, the reaction in this case, as in some others, would have to be at least disappointing and possibly discouraging to the president. In his attempt to be evenhanded on the timber issue, he has brought a storm of angry responses down on his head -- although it appears perhaps less vehement from the standpoint of the environmentalists.
At the same time, Clinton has exposed himself to collateral political damage not unlike the damage he has suffered from his interest in other issues, including gays in the military.
For one thing, the intensity of the negative reaction seems to reinforce the picture, however valid it may be, of an administration that can't get anything quite right.
For another, he has given more evidence to those who say he is spending too much time on too many questions that don't have any direct connection to his principal responsibility -- putting the economy back on track.
The timber issue always has been more complicated than would be suggested by those who have pictured the matter as simply making a choice between jobs for loggers and havens for spotted owls. The timber industry is always sensitive to general economic slowdowns, and the figures on new housing are far from encouraging in this case.
The industry also is suffering fundamental and specific problems of transition as it has become more mechanized, problems that have nothing to do with the environmental questions. There is something fundamentally wrong when it pays to ship raw logs to Japan to be run through sawmills and returned as lumber.
Unhappily for Clinton, however, this is another issue, like gays in the military, in which emotions run extremely hot. Whatever ameliorative steps are taken, there is no gainsaying the complaint that more jobs will be lost if the environmental concerns are to be taken seriously, and that is always wrenching.
The president's advisers and supporters are arguing that at the least he should be credited with facing up to a situation too long ignored. His proposal for federal programs to take some of the sting out of the job losses is the orthodox approach of the government activist, not generically different from, for example, the attempts a generation ago to salvage the economic lives of the coal miners in the Appalachians dislodged by changing technology.
But the context is difficult for Clinton. Voters are suspicious of government solutions, and their fears over their economic situations have made them less generous than they used to be when the economic pie seemed to be growing larger every year. He is proposing another program that costs taxpayer money at the same time he is trying to pass an economic plan that will raise taxes on the middle class.
In the long run, there is probably little chance the president's plan for timber will be promulgated intact. Compromises and changes are inevitable. But the fact that Bill Clinton was willing to come forward with such a plan at all speaks volumes about how he thinks the presidency should be used.