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Panetta Says Clinton Puts Policy Ahead of Popularty

PRESIDENT Clinton has seen his public approval rating drop by nearly a third this year and some of the biggest items on his agenda slip. Why?

At a Monitor lunch Friday, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta explained how he sees Mr. Clinton's predicament.

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``The president was not elected to maintain his popularity,'' said Mr. Panetta. Rather, he said, the president was elected to do something about problems facing Americans that had only been talked about under 12 years of Republican administration.

The reason these problems were not dealt with is that each is protected by major special interests ``that will go after you if you try to change the status quo,'' he said.

Each Clinton effort has been greeted by a tremendous amount of money in opposition, and often against Clinton personally.

* The economic plan: ``We took on a number of business interests. We took on the wealthy.''

* The North American Free Trade Agreement: ``We took on labor and many of our own constituencies in the party.''

* The omnibus crime bill: ``We took on the National Rifle Association.''

* Health reform: ``We took on the insurance companies and provider groups and a whole host of interests that are associated with that effort.''

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As much as $120 million to 130 million were spent against health-care reform, triple what a candidate will spend on a presidential campaign.

``So, clearly there's a price to be paid when you take on these issues. But the president doesn't want to back away from those issues.'' Any president would love to be beloved, he said, but if that is a top priority, then a president is not going to get anything done, in Panetta's view.

``Ronald Reagan could sit in the Oval Office and talk kindly to the American people, but he didn't change what was happening to the deficit,'' or health care, or the quality of education, or welfare reform, Panetta adds. ``And he remained popular.''

Clinton has made a fundamental decision to ``make the lives of ordinary citizens better'' that will cost him popularity at the hands of special interests.

``Does he hope that ultimately the American people will say he did the right thing by taking on these challenges?,'' asks Panetta. ``That's all of our hope, frankly.''

On health care reform: ``The president is not going to walk away from this fight,'' even if it must be taken up in the next Congress, where it will be joined by welfare reform on Clinton's agenda.

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