Clinton Still Has Big Ideas He Just Can't Sell Them

As his State of the Union address draws nigh, Bill Clinton is uneasily confronting the central dilemma of his second term: With a 60% approval rating, he enjoys a level of popularity most reelected Presidents only dream of. Yet he can't convert those high-octane poll numbers into legislative horsepower.

Call it The Little Presidential Engine That Couldn't. With Congress in hostile GOP hands--and likely to stay that way through 2000--and the international policy environment turning chilly for U.S. interests, the President is struggling to shape a new agenda. During a Castro-esque 90-minute news conference on Dec. 16, he test-marketed some giant-sized themes for 1998: reining in runaway entitlement spending, simplifying the tax code, floating a new tax credit for child care, and finding ways to spread the benefits of the economic expansion to the working class. Already on the table is a "Bill of Rights" for patients to help cushion Americans from the excesses of managed-care combines.

Sounds swell. But White House aides trying to convert Clinton's activist impulses into actual policies glumly admit that the boss lacks the political stroke to make most of his initiatives happen. "You'll see a Clinton that does a lot of foreign travel and runs a very opportunistic Presidency," says one outside adviser. "He'll pounce on situations as they present themselves, to underscore that he still has power."

HELLISH YEAR. That, at least, is the plan. The reality is that Clinton is fast exhausting his little pile of political chips. The failure to gain congressional "fast-track" trade-negotiating authority, coupled with the Republicans' ability to block many personnel picks, have cost the White House momentum. To complicate the picture, '98 looks to be a hellish year on the Hill. Clinton will be caught between antagonistic Republicans and liberal Democrats loyal to House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who has been skewering Clintonism as a pallid form of GOP market worship.

This is not a climate in which Presidential proposals thrive. Yet Clinton's need to demonstrate government's relevance drives him to flirt with mega-issues such as income inequality, the downside of global competition, racial polarization, and the threat to Social Security posed by aging baby boomers.

Clinton's solutions, however, don't measure up to the problems. Social Security's coming insolvency disturbs him, but his threadbare answer is a bipartisan reform commission. Workers who lose jobs to foreign competition concern him, but the best the Clintonites can cobble together is a $2 billion job-displacement fund. The growing pool of uninsured Americans (41 million at last count) distresses him, but a new stopgap insurance plan for fiftysomething workers who lose benefits when they take early retirement would put just a small dent in the problem.

Perhaps tax reform best demonstrates the divide between Presidential ambition and action. Intellectually, Clinton has always been drawn to the idea of penalizing consumption and killing tax preferences for business and well-off individuals. But his economic advisers keep telling him that an early embrace of tax reform would let Republicans hypnotize America with pleas for an alluring flat tax. The likely result: The Prez will lay out broad criteria for reform, while continuing to push micro tax breaks that are its antithesis.

When Clinton goes before Congress to lay out his vision, the overarching theme will be "unfinished business" during prosperous times. Not exactly poetry. But it's to be expected from a President who sees his powers ebbing day by day.

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