Clinton fears message is not getting to public


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, at the midway point of his elected term, has identified the problem: He thinks he's done a terrific job, but not enough Americans know it.

So in the time before his State of the Union speech tomorrow, Mr. Clinton devoted himself to recapturing the hearts and minds of the public that elected him in 1992, but that has appeared indifferent to his administration's achievements.

As a first step, he has the White House churning out press releases, briefing books, "talking points" and other testimonials to the effect that the past two years have been highly successful ones for the president -- and for the people.

"When President Clinton campaigned for office, he laid out an ambitious agenda to improve the lives of hard-working Americans," his chief of staff, Leon E. Panetta, said in one such release. "He has kept those commitments with a vigilance unequaled by any president in recent memory."

The president is also returning to the exact themes, phrases and images he used to great effect in 1992 in talking about the economic condition of the middle class.

In his address to the nation tomorrow, advisers say, Mr. Clinton will expound on his vision of a "New Covenant." It is an expression he put in mothballs after 1992 -- until the Republicans' Nov. 8 victory, which propelled the GOP and its "Contract with America" onto center stage.

On Thursday, while signing a bill to make retirement pensions more secure, Mr. Clinton described his "covenant" this way: "It says that people who act responsibly should be rewarded."

Those are the kinds of themes that worked for Mr. Clinton as a candidate. Two years ago, when he took the oath of office as the 42nd president, he promised to "face hard truths and take strong steps" to address the nation's problems. The one problem he singled out was the eroding U.S. standard of living.

"Most people are working harder for less," the new president said on that crisp January morning.

Economy forgotten

But it seemed to many Americans that Mr. Clinton was so buffeted by the vast and varied demands of the presidency after he assumed office that he addressed everything but the economy.

Even to some of his loyalists, he appeared to be searching too hard for a legacy. He left no problem unaddressed; he risked his prestige for initiatives proposed by House Democrats, by his wife, even by his Republican predecessors. He delved deeply into foreign policy, an issue he professed during the campaign to be of secondary importance.

The very first matter he tackled -- trying to open the military to openly gay service members -- set a tone. The issue was not of paramount importance to most voters; it was not resolved conclusively even after Mr. Clinton got involved; it left bad feelings among both gays and the military establishment.

In his second year, Mr. Clinton staked his prestige on a bureaucratic and complex plan for health reform, which went nowhere and established him in the minds of millions of voters as a champion of Big Government.

He traveled the world, holding various "summits." A timber summit in Oregon. A superpower summit in Russia. An Asian trade summit in Indonesia.

But now, as he drafts his second State of the Union speech, Mr. Clinton seems to be coming home to the issues that elected him in the first place.

Tomorrow, aides say, Mr. Clinton will recite what has happened under his administration: falling budget deficits, cuts in the federal work force, the creation of 5.6 million jobs, quarter after quarter of increasing productivity.

They say he will also tout the virtues of his "Middle Class Bill of Rights," which is actually a series of proposed tax cuts for the middle class; introduce a new round of federal budget cuts; and perhaps unveil a plan to raise the minimum wage.

The president's strategists have high hopes for this speech, but his allies outside the White House say they have seen him give good speeches before.

"The idea that one speech can change the whole climate is an exaggeration," said the new Democratic Party chairman, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut. "It has to be followed by proposals, by specific ideas, by actions that show that you know what the voters were saying Nov. 8."

A remembered message

In response to this point, White House officials say they know of at least one message the voters were sending: They liked Mr. Clinton's 1992 middle-class tax-cut idea -- and they didn't like it when he waited two years to offer it.

And so, the day after the State of the Union speech, the president will head to Kutztown University in Pennsylvania for a campaign-style event to rally students who presumably will express support for Mr. Clinton's proposed $10,000 annual tax deduction for college tuition.

If this approach sounds a bit formulaic, White House aides say, so much the better.

"You have to communicate effectively, and . . . it is not terribly complicated," said Michael McCurry, the White House press secretary. "It's important to be very focused on what you say, and maybe sometimes we've tried to cover the gamut. We've had so many exciting things to talk about in the first two years that sometimes you, you know, maybe get lost in the forest when you're trying to talk about all the individual trees."

But even as they profess the necessity of communicating a slimmed-down, digestible message -- that the president has helped the economy -- Mr. Clinton and his strategists can't quite help themselves.

On Thursday, the White House press office issued a 37-page booklet, complete with charts, graphs and accompanying newspaper articles, purporting to show that the president had kept a remarkable number of his 1992 campaign promises.

"You're accusing us of bragging, I see," a smiling Mr. McCurry told reporters. "Well, that is fair. But sometimes you need to be able to lay out the case, tell the people what record you've established . . . tell that news over and over again."

But the sheer volume of the packet demonstrates how difficult it is for this administration to focus on just one or two issues at a time. The booklet also contains some rather dubious entries.

Dubious accomplishments

The mere introduction of the president's health care legislation, which petered out at the end of the last Congress, is listed as an accomplishment. So is the holding of a symposium on Africa.

But at least the president did those things. Another entry states that the president "fought for" campaign finance reform.

Actually, Mr. Clinton was picketed by a friendly and liberal grass-roots organization precisely because he didn't fight for campaign finance reform.

Instead, said Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, Mr. Clinton gave tacit approval to House Democrats to stall the bill at a time when he was out raising millions of dollars from special interests for the Democratic Party.

But haggling over the precise number of Mr. Clinton's accomplishments obscures a larger truth: Two years after he was elected -- in a three-way race -- with only 43 percent of the vote, Mr. Clinton still is having trouble closing the sale with a majority of Americans.

Republicans' explanation is that, although voters might think Mr. Clinton has gotten his sea legs after two years in office, they still see him as a guardian of the Democrats' liberal welfare state.

The voters "rejected Bill Clinton's policies," said the Republican Party chairman, Haley Barbour. He asserted that Americans had instead embraced the Republican agenda of lower taxes, smaller government and less spending.

Tough prospects

The upshot is that as the president prepares for his big speech tomorrow, he faces a cocky Republican majority in Congress, a public approval rating below 50 percent -- the traditional threshold for an incumbent who wants to be re-elected -- the prospect of more Whitewater hearings and an array of politicians from both parties contemplating running against him in 1996.

But since he burst on the national scene three years ago, Bill Clinton often has persevered most when he's been on the defensive and the stakes were high. Over time, this strange sense of self-confidence in the face of apparent disaster has infected those who work for him, too.

Asked how the president could manage to revive his political prospects, Barry Toiv, a White House aide, said, "We're laying the foundation for good things to happen."

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