NEWS ANALYSIS : Clinton Goes for Dialogues Over Dictates : Politics: Meeting on economy illustrates his vision of presidential communication as a two-way street. The style fits his populist agenda.


With his two-day economic conference here, President-elect Bill Clinton is refining a distinctive style of marshaling public support for his policy agenda.

Clinton demonstrated during Monday’s opening session that he is developing a populist communication strategy to parallel his populist economics. In an era of widespread cynicism about Washington, he is trying to push his ideas in a manner that implicitly recognizes the doubts many Americans have about their government’s capacity to lead.

Most presidents considered great communicators essentially have talked to Americans in authoritative speeches from the Oval Office. Clinton, in contrast, seems committed to driving his agenda by showing himself talking with Americans--whether at the nearest McDonald’s, on MTV or around the large oval table at the Robinson Convention Center here.


No matter what the backdrop, Clinton’s goal is to define himself and his programs less through pronouncements delivered from on high than through an ongoing dialogue with the nation. If, as one participant suggested, the Little Rock conference amounts to a nationally televised “teach-in” on the economy, Clinton presented himself equally in the roles of student and teacher.

“Until now, in the era of mass communications, communication from the President to the public has essentially been one-way: Roosevelt on radio, Kennedy or Reagan on television,” one senior Clinton adviser said. “Clinton is the first President who really understands the democratization implicit in the news media, and he has used it to create a dialogue.”

Thus, the dominant images of the President-elect during the first day of the economic conference were not of Clinton speaking but rather listening. At the same time in the formulations of his questions to panelists--and his response to questions from radio listeners--Clinton was able to demonstrate his familiarity with even obscure subjects and statistics.

Clinton’s approach during Monday’s discussions extended the techniques that he has employed all year. During the campaign, he gave relatively few memorable speeches. Instead, he created his most lasting impressions through his willingness to make himself available for questions and suggestions from Americans in unusual settings, from town meetings in New Hampshire to the virgin territory of MTV to his tour of inner-city businesses on Georgia Avenue in Washington after his election. Aides promise more of the same in the White House.

This approach carries echoes of both President Jimmy Carter’s promise to provide a government as good as the people and candidate Ross Perot’s high-tech vision of national town meetings. At some points, Monday’s conference sessions looked like a crowded version of Perot’s campaign “infomercials,” lacking only the collapsible metal pointer.

Taken too far, some critics warn, this ear-to-the-ground strategy can lead Clinton into dangerous waters: As Carter learned, voters like a President to listen, but they demand that he lead, noted Robert Dallek, a presidential historian at UCLA.

Moreover, it remains an open question whether the input Clinton receives from forums like this really influences his thinking. Clinton sat down at the table Monday morning with a detailed agenda, and many of his questions appeared designed to steer his guests toward answers affirming the wisdom of positions he already holds.

When some guests pushed him to move beyond his campaign agenda, he recoiled. During the morning session, the sharpest challenge came from Marion O. Sandler, president of Goldwest Financial Corp. in Oakland, the parent company of World Savings. She pressed Clinton to look at tougher cuts in entitlement programs than he has proposed so far.

But Clinton simply repeated his campaign trail argument that health care reform and increased economic growth might eliminate the need for other reductions in such politically sensitive programs as Social Security, Medicare and federal pensions.

Though such encounters ultimately could breed cynicism, some observers believe that--if backed by action--this emphasis on interaction could boost Clinton’s standing with the public and thus with Congress.

“What President in our time or even in the 20th Century can we remember doing this?” asked Dallek, after watching Clinton taking notes and asking questions like a dutiful pupil. “What presidents have traditionally tried to do is be authoritative: ‘I know the answer.’ What Clinton is saying is: ‘I don’t have all the answers. But you can be assured that I’m searching for them, and we will arrive at judgments we can act upon.’ ”

Clinton, in fact, backed up another step, by using the conference in a concerted effort to change how Americans view the economic problems for which answers are required. One component of that strategy is to shift the focus away from the cyclical recession toward long-term problems. Another is to substitute a new lens for viewing those structural concerns.

For the last 12 years, the White House has defined the economy’s problems largely in terms of excessive government taxation, over-regulation and the high cost of raising money for business.

On Monday, a parade of speakers identified the nation’s most pressing problems as a lack of public and private investment, growing inequality of income and inadequate training and education that has contributed to a slowdown in productivity growth.

It was surely no coincidence that Clinton’s economic program is designed to remedy precisely those problems. Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Robert M. Solow may have captured the conference’s real intent when he capped a discussion of the need for greater training by insisting: “There’s an opportunity here that falls right into the Clinton-Gore program.”

The conference also illustrates Clinton’s belief in consultation almost as an end in itself. In Arkansas, he frequently attempted to co-opt his opposition by bringing them into committees to untangle knotty issues.

On Monday, he did something of the same, visibly turning for advice to some business leaders who had been suspicious of him during the campaign.