The Tragedy Of The Clinton Presidency

A pall is descending upon the Clinton Presidency. After 11/2 years in office, the disparity between the

ideal and the real, the promise and the product, has grown to tragic proportions.

Rarely have the personal character flaws of a President so eviscerated the policy priorities of his own Presidency. The tragedy of Bill Clinton lies not in the difficulty of overcoming opposition to his audacious domestic agenda but in his self-destructive inability to focus and discipline himself and his Administration.

A White House that is run as a frat house does not get things done. A President who is his own Chief of Staff chokes on the details. A policy team split into politicos and professionals flip-flops on issues. And a man who talks about his underwear on TV does not inspire respect or loyalty abroad.

The result, especially on the international stage, is the image of a President reduced to a comic figure--indecisive, disorganized, and given to trying on strategies only to discard them at the briefest criticism. It is ad hoc government, where no single principle appears important enough to fight to the death for. If the projection of power is key to any President's authority, then this Presidency is increasingly impotent. It folds at the slightest opposition, whether the issue is personnel appointments, domestic programs, or foreign affairs. Even tiny Singapore feels it can mock the President of the United States by refusing his personal request not to cane an American teenager.

Clinton's proclivities toward vacillation have progressed to the point where he draws public criticism for issues not of his making and for which his predecessors received no approbrium. North Korea started developing its nuclear weapons a decade ago, and four countries--India, Pakistan, Israel, and South Africa--"went nuclear" during the 1980s. Neither George Bush nor Ronald Reagan received any blame for nuclear proliferation. Bosnia and Haiti are problems that previous Presidents couldn't solve, either.

Yet Clinton is reaping the whirlwind for his "procrastination" on these issues while he receives little credit for what he has accomplished--reducing the budget deficit, promoting NAFTA and GATT, and encouraging reforms of health care and welfare.

Bill Clinton promised to tackle the hard issues, but he has fumbled in the execution. The President is running a bad Presidency. But that could change--if the White House gets its house in order. A tough Chief of Staff, organized lines of authority, more focus on critical issues, and less chatter would end the appalling mess that passes for an Administration.

On foreign policy, the President desperately needs a harder, more seasoned team. The country must have a Secretary of State who commands respect in Europe and Asia, a person who can begin the serious process of coming up with a fresh, post-cold-war foreign policy for America.

Bill Clinton believes in personal redemption. Only he can redeem his own Presidency. He owes it to himself--and the nation--to try.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.