Public pessimism means more trouble for Clinton ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON -- The latest unkind cut for President Clinton is found in the Washington Post-ABC News poll, wherein 56 percent of voters, and 60 percent of members of his own Democratic Party, say "the problems this country faces today are so large that no president could do much to solve them."

The same view is held by 49 percent of Republicans, but it's doubtful they'd say so if George Bush were still in the White House. In fact, the rap against Bush seldom was that he was in over his head in the presidency, but rather that he didn't apply himself on the domestic front.

In Bush's impressive performance in constructing multinational support for the Gulf war to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, he clearly was on top of the job. When he failed to demonstrate the same leadership at home, he was most often characterized as aloof or unperceiving, not inadequate.

Clinton on the other hand is the victim of his own salesmanship in the 1992 campaign as a man who could get things done. If elected, he assured the voters, he along with the Democratic Congress would end legislative gridlock. Instead, he is struggling against the same varied interests that clashed with Bush, and being forced to compromise at what seems to be every turn.

It is to his credit that he is taking on some very tough challenges that Bush dodged, including serious deficit reduction and formulation of a national health insurance plan. And for all his compromises, he is close to achieving his goal of $500 billion in debt reduction in five years.

But because Clinton came into office amid such high public hopes, and has become ensnarled in a series of important and petty gaffes, the country is witnessing a resumption of the pessimism about going "in the wrong direction" that began with the Bush recession.

In ordinary circumstances, the fact that Americans believe that the country's problems are beyond solution might be expected to make them more forgiving of lack of achievement by the president. But there have been so many examples of political miscalculation so early that the impression that the former governor of Arkansas has bitten off more than he can chew has already settled in.

Perhaps more damaging to Clinton, however, has been the perception that for all his talk about cutting "the special interests" down to size, he has tolerated and even caved in to them. While compromise is the essence of effective legislating, Clinton's campaign rhetoric suggested he would drive them off and restore government to average Americans.

That is one reason that the relatively minor matter of the White House travel office became such a big deal. Whether there was mismanagement or not, the affair smacked of special interest and favoritism.

Clinton deserves credit for the candor with which his administration's mistakes in handling the travel office fiasco were dealt. At the least he has learned the Watergate lesson that it's much smarter to admit error or misconduct soon after it happens than to dodge or deceive and be accused of cover-up later.

It is often said with cynicism that campaign promises are made to be broken, and that voters understand this and never intend to hold politicians to them. But Bill Clinton rode into office on a rhetorical charger, painting himself as a knight in shining armor against "the special interests" and "the Washington establishment." So when he shows himself to be somewhat less than that knight, he pays a special price in public disillusionment.

The particular peril in the public view that the country's problems can't be solved by any one president is the possibility, since leadership nevertheless does reside in the presidency in the American system, that voters will look increasingly for someone who is larger than life.

And right now, only Ross Perot is the logical choice of those looking for a miracle worker.

It is Clinton's challenge to demonstrate in the ample time of more than three years left in his term that he can produce enough solutions to major problems to convince voters that the country is going in the right direction. If he can do so, then the belief that the presidency is too big for any one person can provide him breathing space.

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