Clinton executes a one-year turnabout


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's first year in office began by backing away from campaign-year pledges to open up the military to gays, extend a welcoming hand to Haitian refugees, end the bloodshed in Bosnia and cut middle-class taxes.

Then, as his "stimulus" jobs bill was killed by Senate Republicans and conservatives railed against his tax increases, Mr. Clinton's budget passed by only a single vote and his approval rating plummeted to the lowest recorded for any first-term president.

All of that happened in the winter and early spring of 1993. But in this ambitious administration, it seems so long ago.

In the past week, Mr. Clinton resurrected a near-dead trade agreement, took on the National Rifle Association, outlined an ambitious new Pacific Rim economic alliance -- and mediated an end to a acrimonious airline strike in his spare time.

And the White House continued to push its most sweeping -- and toughest to pass -- initiative: health care reform. Its fate will not be decided until next year.

There is a human cost to this frenetic pace -- at least two key White House officials are leaving because of the workload -- but as Congress prepares to adjourn for the year, independent presidential scholars and congressional leaders of both parties insist that Mr. Clinton's first-year legislative record compares favorably with some of the most successful presidents of the century.

"This has been a remarkable session," said Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington noted with some pride that all the president's initiatives this year passed the House.

"President Clinton was ahead of President Johnson and rivals President Eisenhower for the most successful first year of a president in terms of the legislation passed and adopted," he added. "Gridlock has been broken in Washington."

Because the House, Senate and White House are all controlled by one party, Mr. Clinton had an easier time of it than his two immediate predecessors and wasn't put in a position of having to veto anything, points out University of Texas political science professor Bruce Buchanan. In addition, several of the bills Mr. Clinton signed into law were essentially left waiting for him because President George Bush had vetoed them before.

Still, said House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Mr. Clinton has a right to be pleased, especially about the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"I think in all fairness, as a partisan Republican, you have to give him pretty positive marks," Mr. Gingrich said yesterday after a White House meeting. "He clearly came out of the year better than he went in. I think President Clinton has every reason to feel pretty good right now."

Such assessments from congressional leaders can have a self-congratulatory ring to them, but similar assessments came from those outside the legislative process.

"President Clinton lost the stimulus package and passed his budget by one vote, but he didn't retreat," said Ann Lewis, a Democratic Party activist. "He has this huge ambition and these large aspirations, and he just kept going."

Mr. Clinton himself was more measured in his self-assessment yesterday, saying that 1993 was "a very successful year" for his legislation and "a good beginning."

Perhaps Mr. Clinton has learned that when things are actually going well in his mercurial administration, he doesn't need to say too much.

Long before the administration had solved the mysteries of Congress, Mr. Clinton was fond of listing what he considered his administration's achievements.

The early list

The list included passing his budget, the signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the National Voter Registration Act.

But a close examination showed that this list wasn't as impressive as it sounded.

* All presidents get their budgets through. And while Mr. Clinton's aides were proud of shifting money

away from defense in favor of spending on health care, the poor, and young children, some of them concede that Mr. Clinton seemed behind the curve on the national mood to cut government spending.

* The so-called "Motor Voter" bill is a minor law that will make it easier for people to register to vote. It was long pushed by Democrats because they think it will marginally increase turnout of Democratic voters.

* Because some 22 states -- and almost every corporation of any size -- already have family leave provisions, the family leave bill was primarily a symbolic act. Small businesses were exempt from the requirement that workers must be given up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn, newly adopted or sick child. It had passed Congress twice before only to be vetoed by Mr. Bush -- to the chagrin of many moderate Republicans.

Nonetheless, the White House kept plugging away.

Soon more substantive legislative victories began piling up. One created a National Service Corps that will allow thousands of Americans to pay for college by helping out in public schools, day-care centers or other jobs after they graduate. Another reformed student loan procedures.

Finally, in November, the bigger pieces began to fall into place.

Both the House and Senate passed a crime bill that requires a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases, that provides money for new prisons, and that will add up to 100,000 police officers, although details are still being haggled about.

Likewise, both houses passed a campaign-finance bill designed to reduce the effect of special interests, although differences between the versions may doom final adoption.

The crowning success

All of this paled beside the passage of NAFTA, an agreement to eliminate trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada, because Mr. Clinton had to face down organized labor and congressional leaders in his own party.

After Mr. Clinton succeeded in rescuing NAFTA last week, a new image began to emerge: It was of a president with a substantial and growing record of achievement -- and an aura of competence.

"He showed an ability to wheel and deal with the best of them," said Les Francis, who helped lobby Congress during President Jimmy Carter's administration. "And I mean that as a compliment."

The president's victory on NAFTA ended the year "on a high note," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic Party think tank.

But yesterday there was a sad note as well, as Howard Paster, the aide responsible for coordinating Mr. Clinton's agenda with Congress, announced he was leaving.

The 48-year-old Mr. Paster put a brave face on his White House briefing by quipping that the 47-year-old president shouldn't have picked "a chief lobbyist" older than he was."

The truth is that burnout is taking its toll on a White House staff routinely required to work until 11 p.m. during seven-day weeks.

In resigning, Mr. Pastertold the president that "it was this job or his family."

Nor is he the only one making such calculations. Deputy Chief of Staff Roy Neel announced over the weekend that he was leaving, and Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty has also let it be known that he'd prefer a Cabinet position.

"That's the flip side of a president with all this ambition and energy," said Ms. Lewis.

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