WASHINGTON -- For President Clinton, the baseball strike and the controversy over Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. have something in common. Each has offered him an opportunity to change the perception of his presidency that has been most politically damaging -- the view that he has been weak and vacillating.
The conventional wisdom had been that Clinton would be taking a foolish risk if he intervened in the baseball strike. If he failed, the theory went, he would suffer still another political embarrassment.
As it has turned out, however, Clinton's intervention in the baseball dispute, though unsuccessful, has earned him high marks in the political community for his willingness to face up to a difficult issue. At the least, he performed a valuable service by focusing national attention on the blind intransigence of both the team owners and the players.
In the case of his nominee for surgeon general, the president has little choice but to hang tough, even if Foster is finally rejected by the Republican-controlled Senate. If he does, the president could end up winning by losing in the sense that he demonstrated firm resolution rather than being spooked into running when facing stiff opposition.
Among politicians, reputations often are made by how a leader performs in what are called "defining moments" -- situations where everyone is watching. And once a reputation is established in the minds of voters, it is extremely difficult to alter. On the contrary, there always seems to be fresh evidence to reinforce it.
That pattern has never been clearer than in the history of former Vice President Dan Quayle, forced out of the 1996 campaign because he has never been able to change the image he acquired early in the 1988 campaign as a lightweight who would say the wrong things if not controlled by his political handlers.
This is not a recent phenomenon. In 1976, President Gerald Ford was undone by a gaffe in a campaign debate because of his reputation as a bumbler. A few years earlier, George W. Romney never managed to overcome the picture of himself as a gullible politician who had been "brainwashed" on the Vietnam War after he made the mistake of using that word in an interview.
Clinton's reputation as a politician who could be rolled was built early in his presidency with reversals of positions on both issues and personnel. There was considerable clucking when he gradually backed away from his attempt to change the rules on homosexuals in the military, and even more when he abandoned his original energy-tax plan under pressure from some Democratic senators after House Democrats had gone out on a limb supporting the original levy.
In several cases, he was seen as caving in too quickly. He paid a particularly heavy price by deciding to abandon Lani Guinier, an old friend and his nominee for assistant attorney general for civil rights. Indeed, when it was over, some Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee were saying privately that Guinier could have been confirmed if Clinton had chosen to stick with her.
The Guinier case is particularly pertinent in the controversy over Foster because both are African-Americans. Black Democrats in Congress made no secret of their anger when Guinier was scuttled and would not to be expected to remain silent if Foster is also abandoned.
But the stakes for Clinton are much higher than his level of support among liberals who have put themselves on the line for Foster. The president is facing two years of confrontation with a hostile Republican-controlled Congress, and his first response has not been encouraging. Liberals were stunned when he seemed to temporize on the school-prayer issue.
And many were dismayed when his State of the Union speech sounded like an attempt to placate the Republicans.
Now he is faced with the prospect of an uphill fight to see his choice for surgeon general confirmed by the Senate. The outcome doesn't have any great intrinsic significance; the surgeon general is not an important policy-maker in any administration. But the voters like politicians who will stand for something.
Even if he failed, Clinton was on the side of the angels in trying to solve the baseball strike. Even if he fails again with Foster, he will be seen as someone who stands up for what he believes. That is not a bad image for a politician.