WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has complained that background noise over Whitewater, Paula Corbin Jones and donations to the Democratic Party is drowning out his message. The White House is also demoralized by congressional inaction on Clinton's balanced budget proposal - the issue he calls the most important of his second term.
Nonetheless, the president is pressing ahead with an agenda of his own that does not always make headlines and that requires little support on Capitol Hill. It ranges from trying to put his lasting mark on international affairs to urging the states to accept national standards for education.
To achieve these goals, Clinton, still unable to walk unaided after knee surgery, has booked an ambitious schedule this spring that will take him to Europe four times and to state capitols nationwide.
With a Republican Congress in a wait-and-see mood, Clinton's ability to fashion domestic policy is often limited to cajoling and challenging fellow citizens. But, as his aides stress, inspiring Americans to embrace change is a vital function of modern presidents.
"He's doing his job," says Donald Baer, the White House communications director, "which is to mobilize Americans to deal with the problems we're all facing."
On foreign policy, the president has more room to make policy on his own. Although he needs Congress for such matters as ratifying treaties, Clinton negotiated with President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia this month as the unquestioned leader of U.S. foreign policy as well as the de facto head of NATO.
"Only the president gets to do Helsinki," observes Rahm Eman-uel, a senior adviser to Clinton.
In coming months, Clinton wants to expand NATO and NAFTA and resume his crusade to extend health insurance to more Americans. The key issues:
Strengthening public schools is emerging as the top priority among those for which Congress is not necessarily needed. Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton approach the issue from different angles.
The first lady's focus is on small children. She has been visiting elementary schools weekly and is taking the lead role in a White House conference in April intended to identify what government can do to foster intellectual and emotional growth of infants. One of Gore's passions has been harnessing computer technology to enhance classroom quality and excitement.
The president has tried to persuade states to adopt testing standards that would provide a more accurate assessment of how children and teachers are performing.
"The most important thing we can do in education is to hold our students to high standards," Clinton told the Maryland General Assembly last month.
Maryland, which already had embraced the concept of national standards, was an easy sell. So was North Carolina, where Clinton made the same pitch this month. "Success will be incremental," says John Podesta, a deputy White House chief of staff. "But Clinton and [Education Secretary Richard W.] Riley know this, and they are willing to put in the time."
Last year, Clinton signed a welfare bill that caused much consternation in Democratic ranks. His own Department of Health and Human Services warned that the bill would increase poverty. One HHS official, Peter Edelman, a longtime Clinton friend, resigned from the administration and described that law as "the worst thing Bill Clinton has done."
But Clinton had run in 1992 vowing to "end welfare as we know it," and in 1996, Republicans were poised to accuse him of hypocrisy if he vetoed the bill. Even as he signed it, the president expressed misgivings, and he vowed to "fix" the bill's flaws if re-elected.
The law's most glaring flaw, in Clinton's view, was that it allocated too little money for job training and job placement. So, he is proposing a $3 billion measure that would give money to impoverished communities to attract business or create jobs. The administration also is pro-posing a tax credit of up to $5,000 for companies that hire people off welfare.
Edelman and other liberals scoff at the president's claim that $3 billion would produce 1 million new jobs, and even administration officials concede that $3,000 per job is just a start.
"It's an investment, it's leverage, it gets you a lot of the way in the door," says Michael Kharfen, a Health and Human Services official. "Coupled with corporate efforts and new flexibility with communities, it triggers job creation."
Those measures require congressional approval, so Clinton hasn't banked solely on them. He has challenged every church in America to hire a welfare recipient. And he urged top chief executive officers to hire off the welfare rolls; five big companies - Monsanto, United Airlines, Burger King, United Parcel Service and Sprint - took up the gauntlet. "Using the bully pulpit is a right-minded thing for the president to do," said Clifford M. Johnson, a senior fellow with the the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "But there's no reason to believe from past experience that this approach is going to deal with anything other than a fraction of the problem."
As he embarked for his recent trip to Helsinki, Clinton pointed out that the visit between him and Yeltsin, their 11th, was "almost routine."
"The increasing normalcy of our ties make it easy to lose sight of the great opportunity that lies before us now," the president said. He defined those opportunities as building a Europe that is undivided, democratic and at peace; curtailing weapons of mass destruction; and expanding the economic partnership between Russia and America.
The two leaders announced progress on all three fronts. And while attention was focused on the thorny issue of admitting Poland and other former East bloc nations to NATO, Clinton stressed the significance of a separate agreement between NATO and Russia that is intended to give democratic forces in Russia political cover.
The other primary focus is Latin America, where the administration's top concerns are drugs and trade. The president is intent on expanding free trade across the hemisphere, partly as a way of competing with Asia and partly to bolster democracy in the region. He is nudging Mexico and Canada toward accepting Chile as the first additional partner in NAFTA.
Casting an even darker shadow over U.S.-Latin American ties is the pernicious influence of drug money on governments south of the border. It is a threat that even administration officials concede can undo their best plans.
"We're looking at the corrupting power of $30 billion of drug money on the institutions of democratic government," says Barry R. McCaffrey, the White House drug policy director.
Carl M. Cannon covers the White House for The Sun.
Pub Date: 3/30/97