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Clinton: The Return Of The Comeback Kid

The image stirred flickers of recognition for millions of TV viewers. The gravelly voiced figure with the bulbous nose held up a credit card, and instantly Americans thought: "Don't leave home without it." Karl Malden, perhaps? No, the pitchman was Bill Clinton, hawking health reform in his Sept. 22 address to Congress. That item in his hand was the Administration's new "health security card," Clinton's way of dramatizing the goal of lifetime medical care for all at a cost of...um, we'll bill you later.

Propelled by one of his finest speeches, Clinton has done more than give his campaign for universal health coverage a stirring launch. By skillfully harnessing public revulsion for the current system, he has made the status quo unacceptable--assuring that big changes will be enacted next year. Indeed, the Senate Republicans who humbled Clinton during the budget wars are now scrambling to meld their managed-competition plans with his program.

Washington, city of long knives and short memories, now is engaged in a new round of Clinton revisionism. The same politician who was declared terminally inept this spring is being hailed as a master of consensus building. Both views, of course, are hyped. But there's no denying that Clinton is in the midst of another of his periodic up-from-the-ashes revivals.

NO GLITTERATI. After languishing for months, Clinton's approval rating has hit 50% in opinion polls (chart). That's still low for a modern President, but it has given Clinton more clout on Capitol Hill than he has had since February.

In his efforts to sell health reform, Clinton has rediscovered the citizens' forums that showcase his gift for empathy with the downtrodden. With televised town meetings and sit-downs in diners, Clinton also has reestablished a gut-level connection to working Americans that was lost during his early days of partying with the Hollywood glitterati and fumbling such issues as gays in the military. Says GOP pollster William McInturff: "Clinton has conveyed an emotional commitment to reform that translated well to people. That's helping him win back [Reagan] Democrats and independents."

In the view of ebullient Clintonites, the turnaround isn't accidental. In focus groups, "when you ask whether Clinton has a vision or cares about `people like me,' all the numbers are up," says top White House strategist George R. Stephanopoulos. "That shows he's getting credit for at least attacking festering problems."

Clinton also has helped himself with his choice of issues. Case in point: His conversion from navel-gazer to vocal backer of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Politically, the issue is difficult. The AFL-CIO uses opposition to NAFTA as a litmus test for its Hill supporters. Worse, Ross Perot is waging an effective campaign to bury the pact in a storm of populist innuendo.

Despite aides' fears that a trade fight would divert energy from health reform, Clinton has begun to make an impassioned case for expanded trade. The decision seems economically sound. But there's a political benefit, as well. By allying himself with free-trade Republicans, Clinton has laid the groundwork for future bipartisan alliances on such key "New Democratic" issues as crime and welfare reform.

"ACTIVIST." A less difficult choice for Clinton was his embrace of Vice-President Al Gore's National Performance Review. Clinton is fascinated by ideas for "reinventing government." Although the Gore effort began modestly, with the President's cheerleading, it grew into an ambitious project that came up with sensible proposals for cutting red tape--thereby reinforcing Clinton's reformist credentials.

"When you start to put the budget, NAFTA, health-care, and other reform efforts togther, the President gains credibility," says Thomas E. Mann, director of government studies at the Brookings Institution. "The public sees an activist Presidency coping with difficult problems."

Of course, critics can still find plenty of bones to pick with Clinton's approach to the issues. A health plan that relies on phantom savings risks sowing public cynicism. Clinton's 11th-hour conversion to NAFTA may have come too late to overcome antitreaty momentum, exposing him to a global embarrassment if the pact goes down. And one wonders what will become of Gore's reinventing-government blueprint now that the President is creating a new bureaucracy for health care.

Still, by sticking with his goal of fundamental change, Clinton has emerged from his trials scalded but stronger. In the process, he has learned a lesson that eluded George Bush: When it comes to Presidential leadership, trying and failing to tackle tough issues is nowhere as bad as failing to try at all.

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