Washington -- WHEN PRESIDENT Clinton offered his "Contract With the Middle Class," he contended he favored such a proposal long before Republicans advanced their own initiatives. The president -- evoking memories of the GI Bill of Rights and pledging to shun "politics as usual" -- proposed a "Middle-Class Bill of Rights" that promised targeted tax advantages.
Announcing his opposition to "ideas that sound good but aren't paid for," Mr. Clinton expected to reduce government spending and turn "dozens of programs over to states and communities that know how best to solve their own problems." He later outlined cuts in several departments and agencies.
Will the contract work for the president? Has he outlined a formula for success in the remaining years of this term? I am skeptical. The speech last month did have some admirable features: brevity and matching the relatively modest tax cuts with spending cuts. Yet it has been rightly said: "If it isn't worth doing, it isn't worth doing well." The address fed the image of the president as more anxious to please than to do what is right.
Success for this president in the next two years will be gauged primarily by whether he can overcome the deficiencies of his presidency, not by reinforcing inadequacies already there or reinventing himself in the image of presidents past. Somehow, sometime, this president has to clarify the meaning of his presidency. There is perhaps no more uniform commentary on his administration than it lacks definition. Mr. Clinton is viewed by many as overly anxious to be a great president in a time when simple competence will suffice. In any event, greatness is not a goal; it is a tribute bestowed for a job well done.
What might be done in the next two years to bolster the president's status? He might have begun by showing patience and waiting for the State of the Union message to declare his intentions for the next two years. That is the president's constitutional and ceremonial event. Bill Clinton needs to gain stature as president. Weak from the start (winning just 43 percent of the vote), he has devalued the institutional presidency. He travels too much, jogs too often, is too available to Larry King and tolerates a sloppy and casual White House operation. We don't want royalty in our presidents but we don't want the fella next door, either, or the guys and gals he hangs out with.
The purpose of gaining and preserving stature is to provide protection when there are setbacks, such as the other party gaining majorities in Congress. On these occasions, the president has a unique opportunity to display his raw leadership capabilities and political prowess.
A tax-cut proposal of any kind by the president was sure to be interpreted as playing "catch-up" with the Republicans, not a show of leadership. Then to justify it as restoring the "American dream" and somehow connected to the GI Bill of Rights and "reinventing government" was bound to feed public doubts about the president's forthrightness. But, in addition, joining the tax-cut chorus at the very time the Entitlement and Tax Reform Commission completed its work raised further doubts about the president's policy compass. That the commission acknowledged a long-term problem but could not agree on a plan of action might have invited leadership from the White House. Instead, the president, eager to follow rather than lead, offered his ante.
Even more distressing, however, was Mr. Clinton's absurd call for an end of politics for the next two years. Presidents are, and should be, political. One can agree, as Mr. Clinton asserts, that his tax proposals are not "about the next election." They are about the last election! But the notion that he and his staff are unconcerned about 1996 is, of course, preposterous. Nor should they wear political blinders. They need to practice "unusual politics" to win back support in both presidential and congressional elections. Alas, that effort received a setback with the president's "politics-as-usual" speech.
Charles Jones, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote this for Newsday.