Clinton's grasp of details is an asset to be prized


WASHINGTON -- If you want to understand President Clinton, the first thing you have to accept is that he is someone who dances every dance. If there is an issue on which he is not fully informed and ready to offer an analysis and perhaps an opinion, it has yet to come to light in his first year in the Oval Office.

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell says he has never seen a president with such a command of subject matter. "When we [members of Congress] talk to him," he said the other day, "we find he knows all about the subject. We're not used to that."

It is not unusual for a president to have a grasp of the details of his own programs. Even Ronald Reagan, who made vagueness an art, could digest a briefing paper from his staff and pass it on to an audience. So it is not surprising when Bill Clinton goes before a group of other politicians, as he did with the Democratic Leadership Council last week, and spends 45 minutes talking without notes about the details of his health-care and welfare reform programs.

More impressive was a performance at Blair House at a luncheon with about 40 reporters at which the president spent 75 or 80 minutes answering questions in which he discussed in some detail, among other things, the shooting spree on the Long Island commuter train, the North American Free Trade Agreement, welfare reform, proposals to put new restrictions on lobbyists, the pros and cons of different bills dealing with campaign finance reform, gun control in general, gun control insofar as it might apply to the specific problems of New York City, various methods of achieving universal health insurance coverage, the legalization of drugs, how to deal with the caps on federal spending, the rationale for taking health-care costs off budget, New York's problems in dealing with Medicaid, how the rules of the Congressional Budget Office limit what he can do legislatively, the difficulty of getting his message through to the voters, the potential of a nuclear threat from North Korea, the problems of the inner city in Detroit, China's policy on nuclear proliferation, the strike of flight attendants at American Airlines, legislation to curb the independence of the Federal Reserve Board, the length of the average workweek, the stormy relationship between Sen. Charles H. Robb and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder in Virginia and his own relationship with the AFL-CIO.

Nobody asked him to analyze the problems of the Washington Redskins, but you had the feeling that he wouldn't be stuck for an answer.

Clinton's grasp of detail and his obvious fascination with the nuances of public policy questions seems all the more striking because he follows not only the blissfully above-it-all Reagan but George Bush, who clearly had little or no interest in most domestic policy questions and had little or no patience with those who dwelled on them.

In itself, this Clinton quality -- the ability to genuinely understand and then talk articulately and thoughtfully about the various alternatives for governmental action -- is not enough to produce a successful presidency. But it is an asset much to be prized in a chief executive.

In Clinton's case, it also seems to be a source of some frustration that voters don't share a similar interest in important issues and are so difficult to reach.

Asked the most surprising thing he has learned in the White House, the president said it was "how hard it was to sort of use the bully pulpit of the presidency to communicate with the American people." He was distressed, he indicated, to discover that the morning after his deficit-tax plan passed Congress, two-thirds of the voters thought it included a substantial personal income tax increase.

At another point, discussing his relatively low approval ratings in opinion polls, Clinton said there is "a time lag between when things happen and when they are perceived to have happened" -- a lag that the president sees as explaining why the relatively encouraging economic news of the last few weeks has not caused more optimism among his constituents.

It is far too soon to guess whether Bill Clinton is going to be a successful president or whether he is going to be a formidable candidate for a second term. But one thing that is clear is that he knows what he's talking about, which is a start.

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