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Presidential Themes

AS President Clinton returned to Washington from his vacation on Martha's Vineyard, his press secretary Dee Dee Myers said he will focus this fall on several items. Among them are health-care reform, campaign-finance reform, revisions to the Clean Water Act and to Superfund legislation, and congressional approval of the GATT trade-liberalization agreement signed earlier this year.

And, she added, he will focus on themes as well: community values and the need for the nation to ''come together.'' Then she continued: ''I think you'll see an emphasis on the more thematic part of his presidency.''

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We welcome a return to key themes if the move represents an attempt to give the Clinton presidency a clear philosophical basis. Yet the timing of this renewed emphasis raises questions about whether it reflects a strategic recentering on deeply held beliefs or is a reflexive tactical response to the prospect of larger-than-expected Democratic losses in Congress in November and a gloomy outlook for Clinton's legislative agenda.

A June Gallup Poll reported that 50 percent of the respondents said that Mr. Clinton's values don't reflect their own. As historian Gary Wills has pointed out, this is an unenviable position for a president. To the extent that this is a White House communications problem, chief of staff Leon Panetta is said to be on the verge of recommending a significant shake-up in Clinton's staff that would be aimed in part at improving communications.

The values of community and working together, however, are reflected as much by what is done as by what is said. Working together in a bipartisan fashion has been a hallmark of Clinton's legislative approach only on select issues such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was negotiated by a Republican president with the support of a large number of Republicans in Congress. Health-care reform, on the other hand, began behind closed doors and carried a line-in-the-sand approach on which Clinton and congressional Democrats ultimately had to yield.

Such initial absolutism may work for a president operating from political strength, but not for a plurality president with shaky public support and a determined opposing party in Congress. Clinton set out the themes of community and working together eloquently in his inaugural address. It's time to see them more consistently practiced.

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