WASHINGTON -- President Clinton already has paid a heavy political price for a policy on gays in the military that he calls "an honorable compromise" but that satisfies no one. Opinion polls have made it clear for weeks that the issue has hardened opposition to Mr. Clinton among cultural conservatives without winning corresponding support among gays.
But a more critical question is how much the president's handling of the issue has reinforced the perception of him among a broader constituency as a weak leader caving in to one group after another -- in this case, the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
By an unhappy coincidence for Mr. Clinton, his announcement on gays in the military came on the heels of a new poll conducted for the Associated Press that found only 37 percent of Americans consider him a "strong leader" while 47 percent do not. Three months ago, the figures were essentially reversed, 49 percent to 37 percent.
The survey also found that most voters, 58 percent to 28 percent, believe he has broken his campaign promises too often. And, by 55 percent to 25 percent, these same voters believe he is failing to break the gridlock in Washington.
The figures defining the president's image of weakness are particularly striking because the survey was made immediately after the economic summit in Tokyo that Mr. Clinton and his surrogates insisted was a howling success. But the most significant thing about the findings is that they confirm the conventional wisdom among the political wise guys here who have been saying that this is a president "who can be rolled" -- meaning a weak leader.
In their view, Mr. Clinton's collapse on the gays in the military issue is only the latest in a series of occasions on which the president has shown the kind of political flexibility that invites defiance.
Item: Even during the transition, the president-elect sent a message of weakness when he reversed his decision to appoint Chicago banker William Daley as secretary of transportation and gave the job instead to former Denver Mayor Federico Pena because of demands from Hispanic-Americans for a second seat in the Cabinet. It was only the most glaring of the cases in which the new president seemed to be bending himself out of shape to achieve his Cabinet "diversity."
Item: Some congressional veterans and White House strategists alike believe his problems with his economic plan can be traced directly to Mr. Clinton's willingness to back off on his proposal for increasing grazing fees on federal lands in the West. The Democratic senators who raised the protests were stunned at the abrupt reversal by the White House that gave them far more than they expected. As one Senate Democrat said privately at the time, "It tells me that if you dig in your heels, he'll give in to you."
Item: Liberals in the House were outraged when the president, after pressing them to approve this energy tax proposal, acquiesced in it being scuttled in the Senate after Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma and a handful of colleagues objected. That reaction remains a key factor in the liberal attitude toward the conference now under way on the final version of the economic plan.
Item: Mr. Clinton's decision to drop Lani Guinier, his nominee for assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department, was taken as further evidence Mr. Clinton was unwilling to fight, even in this case for someone who was ostensibly a friend.
To those with doubts about the presidential backbone, Mr. Clinton's course on the issue of gays in the military is part of a pattern. As in so many other cases, the president has abandoned a campaign promise. Once again, he is allowing himself to be overridden by others -- in this case, Sen. Sam Nunn, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and his own secretary of defense, Les Aspin, as well as the Joint Chiefs. And once again, he has allowed the controversy to simmer for months before reaching a decision, thus conveying an impression of an executive paralyzed by indecision.
The image of presidential weakness is not irreversible. But it is much like the one that undermined -- and eventually destroyed -- another Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. For Mr. Clinton, it is not an encouraging precedent.