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Why President's Start Has Been So Shaky

BARELY into its third week and, without having yet tackled any large, substantive problem, the Clinton administration finds itself on the defensive. It's off to the shakiest start of any administration in modern times. What's happening?

Part of the problem isn't President Clinton's doing. It used to be that presidents were given "honey months" - but no more. Problems fly thick and fast before incoming staffs have even learned their way around the West Wing. Pervasive electronic communications bring every presidential move under intense, instantaneous national scrutiny. And elements of the press now seem to think they have a solemn constitutional responsibility to pounce upon those in positions of authority.

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New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis noted this week that during the 1992 campaign many Republicans had charged the press with bias against George Bush. "Well, ladies and gentlemen," Mr. Lewis crowed, "look at the press now and think again. Reporters and commentators are savaging Bill Clinton." Such behavior, he concluded "comes naturally to a free press." Any free press will air criticism of political leaders. But in our time, for reasons that include the spread of new professional norms, journalism h as become increasingly enveloped in an "adversary culture." American democracy suffers for it.

Still, Mr. Clinton has erred in ways that, should they become a persistent pattern, will doom his administration. First, and most important, a number of his early acts have reinforced doubts about Clinton the man that were his major political problem during last year's campaign: whether, against the high expectations we bring to the presidency, he merits public trust. Just before Clinton's inauguration, Yankelovich Partners asked a cross-section of Americans whether they consider "Bill Clinton ... a lead er you can trust, or do you have some doubts and reservations?" Even at this point, the closest Clinton came to a "honeymoon," only 41 percent answered affirmatively.

Against this backdrop, Clinton has repeatedly reversed stands taken as candidate. Instead of a "middle class tax cut," the middle class will undoubtedly be asked to pay more. The deficit will not, after all, be cut in half over the next four years, as the candidate had promised. Despite the growing public sense that politicians are subject to different rules than ordinary folks, Clinton nominates for attorney general a person who, his screening staff knew, had recently broken federal immigration and tax law. Until an uproar developed, plans went ahead for special-interest-financed galas for the secretary of commerce designee.

One of the easiest promises to keep was Clinton's vow to cut the presidential staff by 25 percent. With a new administration coming in, no one needed to be fired; and virtually all analysts have long argued that the bureaucratic layers that have developed in the White House retard presidential decisionmaking. Still, the cuts are not to be. In foreign affairs, candidate Clinton condemned Bush administration policy on Haitian refugees as nothing short of immoral; now Clinton leaves that policy unchanged.

No president in modern times has kept every campaign pledge. But Clinton's reversal rate is terribly high. It comes at a time when much of the public is, rightly, angry that many politicians discard campaign promises so cavalierly.

Almost as troubling is the muddled thinking behind Clinton's appointments. He said that his nominees would as a group "look like America," which was fine. But he imposed on himself a fairly rigid quota system involving gender, race, and ethnicity. This was bad policy and bad politics. Given the wealth of talent among women and blacks active in Democratic politics, no Democratic president who seeks the best will have difficulty fielding appointees among whom women and blacks are a substantial presence. Bu t to bind oneself to numeric goals is wrong: It violates the ideal of hiring on strict merit standards; it unnecessarily exposes the president to additional interest-group pressures; and it offends many Americans who, while comfortable with diversity, reject the philosophy that underlies most forms of quota-based selection.

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