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Clinton Needs Course Correction

ONE would have thought that budget director Leon Panetta would have shaken things up more with his candor about mounting Clinton administration problems. He certainly got the president's attention: Clinton now is out campaigning for his economic and other programs. But there is little evidence that Mr. Panetta's evaluation has led to serious intentions about readjusting administration priorities or substantively narrowing the Clinton agenda.

Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown provided an early insight into what appears to be a continuing presidential unwillingness to restructure his programs. Mr. Brown spoke at a Monitor breakfast shortly after Panetta had his astonishing say about what he saw as the sad state of affairs in administration policy and planning. Listen to Brown's first words:

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"During the campaign and since taking over the presidency Mr. Clinton has redefined the agenda for America. In my mind he was born to be president. He is extremely comfortable in the job. He has incredible intellect, energy, resilience. He's going to be a great president."

"But how about Leon Panetta's gloomy words about the administration?," someone asked.

"I think Panetta made a mistake," Brown said. "I disagree with the assessment. I'm dealing every day with the same issues he talks about. Having candor is different than being correct. He may have been candid but he was not correct."

Here Brown emphasized that this administration's election had been about "change." "We have accomplished a lot," he said. He acknowledged that "we now have some challenges. For example, we underestimated the Republican desire in the Senate to be obstructionists."

But Brown said he disagreed with Panetta's observation that Clinton had too much on his plate and that he should delay his health-care reform initiative until mid-summer: "We promised health care," he said, "and we must move forward with that."

Since Brown's visit with reporters that morning there has been little evidence that the president is substantively reshaping a course that some observers are already saying might lead to a failed presidency. He did decide to restructure his White House staff, seeking "more focus." And he did come up with a tax trust-fund proposal. But those moves only touch on his problems. Indeed, the trust proposal seems, of itself, to be an admission that the economic package is in trouble. And immediately the Republi cans in Congress were saying they weren't buying the plan.

So it is that I find myself among a decreasing number of presidential watchers who persist in saying that it is still early and that the president has ample time to make a comeback.

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The "obstructionists" are not really the Republicans in the Senate, plus a few Democrats. They are a lot of American people who are the naysayers today to what Clinton wants to do - many of whom voted for him.

Newt Gingrich, the GOP House Whip from Georgia, put it precisely right the other morning at breakfast when he said that if Clinton had told voters that he would be asking them to pay all these new and increased taxes so that they could have all the programs he promised, "Bush would have won and Clinton would have tied with Ross Perot for second."

The swing vote that swept Clinton into the presidency (not by much) came mainly from conservative Democrats, particularly in the South, and wavering Bush supporters, all of whom bought the concept that the Arkansas governor was a "new kind of Democrat." They liked his talk of "ending welfare as we know it," of a tax cut for those in the middle-income brackets, and of providing an underpinning for the family values of work and responsibility.

So now we have a beleaguered president with both Republicans and Perot shooting at him. To make a comeback, he must begin to push for spending cuts and find ways to avoid more taxes. He promised good things, too, along the way. He can still move ahead with change, and certainly provide some movement toward health-care reform. And how about making a serious effort to achieve campaign reform and really sweeping welfare reform? It's time for an early timeout, Clinton. It's time to regroup, reassess, and rea djust priorities.

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