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NEWS ANALYSIS : Clinton Defines Presidency With Preacher’s Voice

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“If you were just a little bit better boy,” Bill Clinton’s grandmother used to tell him when he was growing up, “you could be a preacher.” The President has told the story often, adding with a mischievous grin that he chose politics instead because he knew he could never stay entirely out of trouble.

In fact, politics and preaching are kindred professions. Clinton, more than most, has always embodied both the policy expert and the preacher in his public nature--contending elements that he and his advisers have long sought to keep in balance.

And, with his first year in office drawing toward a close, the President increasingly has emphasized the preacher side of his nature, making a notable shift in the emphasis of his public statements and the overall direction of his White House.

The change carries clear risks. As recent headlines and Clinton’s jesting way of telling the story about his grandmother underscore, his conduct has not always been pure. When he talks about “personal responsibility,” as he frequently has in recent months, voters may wonder about examples of seeming irresponsibility in his own life.

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And clarion calls for the nation to meet tough challenges may ring hollow if a President seems to set less demanding standards for himself.

So far, Clinton’s political opponents in Washington have hesitated to level such charges in public, perhaps fearing a backlash. But presidential aides have not stopped worrying about the potential vulnerability.

Nonetheless, for purely practical reasons if nothing else, Clinton and his aides believe the risks to be worth running. And they are likely to continue the new emphasis in the coming year.

For one thing, talking about values is becoming increasingly popular on the American political scene. Faced with ominous and seemingly intransigent social and economic problems, both politicians and voters are beginning to focus on the need to change basic attitudes toward such things as drugs, crime and having children out of wedlock. Clinton aides said that they believe his new emphasis on thematic preaching over specific policy prescriptions has accounted for a substantial share of the current rise in his popularity.

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For another, some strategists argued, continuing to emphasize the preacher side of his presidency offers Clinton his best--perhaps his only--hope of building the kind of broad and enduring support among voters that was conspicuously absent during his first year in office.

Although he won notable victories, including the deficit-reduction package and the North America Free Trade Agreement, each was a cliffhanger and each required the President to start from scratch, building congressional majorities brick by brick. That perilous pattern will continue, these strategists said, unless Clinton uses the White House pulpit to enunciate a comprehensive vision and set of values that win wide public support for his presidency and his proposals.

At times during his campaign for the presidency and in the opening months of his Administration, Clinton’s policy side seemed to dominate. His public statements, to the dismay of his aides, were often endless and confusing laundry lists of his policy positions. There was little indication of what overarching theme or vision might lie at his core.

Eventually, Clinton himself came to recognize the problem. “I don’t want to be actuary-in-chief,” he told aides in early September as they sat in the Oval Office working on the mid-September speech in which he would announce his health care program.

The result has been a series of speeches addressing issues that transcend specific legislative battles.

The most widely noted was his mid-November appearance in Memphis, Tenn., before ministers of the Church of God in Christ, one of the nation’s largest black denominations. Clinton talked poignantly about the epidemic of violence and family breakdown in urban America and invoked the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he urged the ministers to join him in helping to “meet the great crisis of the spirit that is gripping America today.”

In subsequent speeches, Clinton has suggested that public discourse in the United States has become “too secular,” tacitly endorsing a larger role for ethical and religious values. He has also taken on a subject that for a generation was all but taboo for politicians, at least Democrats--the decline of the family and the dangers of the huge rise in out-of-wedlock births, particularly among lower-income Americans.

This emphasis on values and broad themes in part reflects one of the lessons that Clinton says he learned during the last year.

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Discovering the special power of a President’s words was one of the big surprises of his first year in office, Clinton said in a recent interview with wire service reporters. “The thing that surprised me is that the words of a President count for more,” he said. “They do count for more than I had really imagined before I came here.

“I think that early on in my term I underestimated the importance of trying to take certain times and really make clear to the American people what I believe and where we were going,” he added.

“It’s a very important aspect of the job, the other side of the presidency,” Clinton said in another recent conversation.

Or, as he described the situation in a recent speech in New York, “we almost have two tasks.”

“We’ve got this sort of, these rational challenges. You know, get the deficit down, get investment up. Train the work force better, expand trade, do things that will work.” But at the same time, Clinton said, he sees a need to address larger issues “underneath” the rational surface, particularly “the fact that year in and year out we are losing an enormous percentage of our people to our common future and that they in turn are making the rest of us much more miserable and less free and less hopeful in our own lives.”

In focusing on such larger issues, most of which have at their core the element of personal accountability, Clinton runs a risk that goes beyond incongruous echoes of his own past conduct: the risk of seeming to promise far more than he can deliver.

On the basic economic issue that he has sought to address--reversing 20 years of stagnant wages for middle-class workers--Clinton has taken on a problem that involves a host of perplexing causes, from troubles with American education to the globalization of economic competition. On issues such as the rise of out-of-wedlock births, his target takes in not only government programs like welfare but also the vast social changes of the last generation.

Clinton repeatedly reminds his listeners that reversing those trends will take time. “We do not have to do it overnight,” he said in one recent speech. But his Republican opponents already have argued that his rhetoric about rebuilding the security of America’s neighborhoods and the dignity of work outshines the programs he supports.

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Administration initiatives “have tended to open well on the strength of the President’s personal advocacy and then to falter as revealed details make plain his attachment to traditional, big-government, tax-and-spend liberalism,” argued Republican strategist William Kristol.

Not surprisingly, Clinton’s advisers disagreed with that analysis, although they conceded the risk. “Clinton has a vision and the public has come to see him as visionary. But if it is not tied to effectiveness, it is seen as political,” said Clinton’s pollster and adviser Stanley B. Greenberg.

Nonetheless, Clinton aides--and outside students of the presidency as well--believe that the new emphasis is correct. Indeed, at a dinner earlier this fall at the White House, a group of roughly a dozen leading historians, political scientists and sociologists urged Clinton to spend more of his energy on using the President’s bully pulpit to shape the national agenda and give Americans a sense of the future rather than to push the details of specific legislation.

The academics, brought together by Greenberg, a former Yale professor, met the next day with Clinton’s top aides and advisers and emphasized similar points.

“The message was that the success of presidents isn’t often defined by legislation; several said it was rarely defined by legislation,” said Clinton aide Mandy Grunwald, who attended both gatherings.

Paradoxically, while that lesson is one that Clinton often seemed to resist earlier this year and last, he actually began his presidential campaign emphasizing broad themes--the need for the Democratic Party to restore its ties to the middle class and the need for the country to heal its divisions of race and refocus on common purposes.

A speech late in 1991 to the same church convention he addressed in November, for example, became an occasion for an impassioned oration about the need for healing society’s wounds.

But as the 1992 campaign developed, Clinton and his strategists encountered a sour popular mood, a public grown cynical of political promises and demanding “specifics.” As a result, during much of his campaign, Clinton unleashed his policy side, staging town meetings at which he would spew forth fugal answers to voters’ questions--complete with intertwined four-part themes and variations.

In the later stages of the campaign, under constant prodding from advisers, Clinton began to simplify his message once again.

But even on the night of his election, campaign Communications Director George Stephanopoulos had to remind him to avoid being “too programmatic” in his victory speech. And once in office, Clinton reverted quickly to his “wonk” form.

Because of that, Clinton came to appear trapped in the morass of legislative detail he was proposing and polls showed the public deeply confused about his larger purposes.

By contrast, as the year ends, a series of polls have shown the public more favorably disposed toward Clinton.

Perhaps more important, the polls have shown the public increasingly able to identify where Clinton is trying to lead the country and what he stands for.

The shift has had an impact in Washington as well.

The signature event of Clinton’s spring was the sight of Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) celebrating the victory of a Republican-led filibuster that killed Clinton’s economic stimulus package--the purpose of which Clinton had never succeeded in explaining to the country.

Seven months later, Congress ended its session with Dole surrendering on his attempt to filibuster gun control--an issue on which Clinton had successfully helped focus public attention.

Another example of the change can be seen by Clinton’s health care speech in September, compared to the speech he gave last February to announce his budget plan.

Both speeches used the same overall form--professor Clinton employing a joint session of Congress as a classroom and delivering a lecture that millions of Americans would watch at home.

But the budget speech was larded with sentences detailing specific tax and spending proposals such as: “We propose a permanent investment tax credit for the smallest firms in this country, with revenues of under $5 million.” When Congress did the inevitable--changing those details as the budget bills worked their way through the legislative process--each change came to be seen as an Administration defeat.

By contrast, in the health care speech, Clinton carefully avoided reciting the details of his plan--painting in broad strokes and leaving others to fill in the gaps later.

That approach has caused skepticism among some who have complained that Clinton did not provide a sufficiently detailed plan.

But by sticking with general principles, Clinton so far has been able to keep the debate focused on his preferred issues--universal coverage and cost control.

Aides said that much of the difference involves Clinton’s growing accustomed to the nature of his job. Governors--the job Clinton held for most of his adult life--spend most of their time dealing with individual programs and proposals. They are “executives” in a way that presidents generally are not.

For Clinton, his aides now are saying, the initial months of the Administration involved considerable difficulty becoming used to the difference between the governorship and the presidency, as well as the particulars of wielding power in Washington.

“He had to get up to speed on huge chunks of knowledge,” according to one senior aide. “He had to learn to understand Congress.”

At one point after the stimulus package collapsed, Clinton complained to aides that he had been forced into a situation where “I had to turn to other people and ask: ‘What will the Senate do?’ And they were wrong.” Clinton spent much of the next couple of months trying to learn enough about Congress so that he would not repeat that experience.

“A large part of why he didn’t use the bully pulpit (in the spring) was that his mind was somewhere else,” the senior aide said. “He was using his public forum to speak to David (L.) Boren, not America, because his head was focused on David Boren,” the aide added, referring to the Oklahoma Democratic senator whose defection from the Administration’s side helped kill the stimulus plan.

Now, the aide suggested, Clinton has a better understanding of his role. “He gets it now.”


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