Clinton's wonderful summer High approval rating: Helped by victory on budget, tax issues and prosperous economy.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

EVEN BEFORE he departed for a three-week vacation on Martha's Vineyard, President Clinton was having the best summer since he moved into the White House. His popularity is higher than ever, the economy continues to purr, he has outmaneuvered Congress on key issues and has co-opted the Republican opposition on many of their bedrock positions.

Everything, it seems, is going right for the president. The Senate hearings on campaign finance abuses by Democrats have been a dud so far, uncovering little that wasn't already known about administration efforts to cultivate foreign campaign donors. The special prosecutor's Whitewater investigation still hasn't implicated the First Lady or the White House in alleged wrongdoing or cover-ups. Even Mr. Clinton's injured knee has finally healed to the point he can take up golf once again.

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Overseas, the president triumphed in his strategy to expand NATO membership to former satellite nations of the former Soviet Union, then received a hero's welcome in some of those same countries. He was a hit everywhere he traveled.

At home, he reveled in the glow of the Greenspan economic miracle. The longest prolonged expansion in the post-World War II era shows no sign of abating any time soon. To the amazement of economists, unemployment dropped to 4.8 percent without creating inflationary pressures. In fact, given the acknowledged distortion in the Consumer Price Index, real inflation is hovering close to zero.

Meanwhile, the strong economy has meant bulging tax receipts for the U.S. Treasury, sending the federal deficit tumbling to just $37 billion and paving the way for a relatively painless balanced-budget accord. Welfare reform also seems to be having a positive impact with 3.4 million recipients, close to 25 percent, leaving the rolls.

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Time and again this summer, the president has outfoxed Republicans on Capital Hill. When GOP hardliners managed to attach unpalatable amendments on social issues to a disaster-aid bill for flood victims in the upper Midwest, Mr. Clinton vetoed the bill, then successfully placed the blame for the delay in disaster relief on the Republican Congress.

When Republicans pushed for a balanced budget agreement, Mr. Clinton held out until he got the education tax cuts he wanted and a major expansion of Medicaid for children whose parents don't have medical coverage.

At the end, opinion polls showed the president, not the Congress, getting credit for both the tax cuts and the balanced-budget deal.

To add to the GOP's embarrassment, Mr. Clinton became the first president to use a line-item veto to reject pork-barrel spending measures -- stealing an issue that Republicans long had championed.

With frustration within Republican ranks growing at each Clinton triumph, it was not surprising that House Speaker Newt Gingrich had to fend off a botched putsch. Militant, younger GOP congressmen wanted their House leader to be more confrontational and hardline in dealing with the president -- even though that kind of intransigence had fueled the start of Mr. Clinton's comeback when Congress shut down the government rather than compromise on budget issues.

All this has contributed to a stratospheric approval rating of 61 percent for Mr. Clinton, nearly at the same level achieved by Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan at comparable stages of their presidencies. If not prosperous, most people are content with their lives. They trust Mr. Clinton far more than Congress to do the right thing for their well-being.

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While he catches up on his tan and his summer reading list, the president can savor these heady times. After Labor Day, things may not seem quite so rosy.

If the Teamsters union's strike against United Parcel Service stretches out much longer, it could put a crimp in segments of the economy. Those campaign finance hearings could hit pay dirt when they resume next month. Whitewater prosecutors may yet target the First Lady in their investigation. Wall Street jitters so evident in recent days could snowball. Democratic unhappiness with the president's rightward drift, especially from diehard liberals, could mushroom. Republicans in Congress could rally around the beleaguered Mr. Gingrich and present a more unified front on issues.

But Mr. Clinton has proved himself a resilient and extremely flexible politician. He also has won grudging respect from the American public. At the moment, he is in peak form, which has made for a wonderful summer.

Pub Date: 8/19/97

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