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Clinton Setbacks May Signal Onset of Second-Term Blues

Next three years will test the president's coalition-building skill with lawmakers.

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Like a satellite launched into orbit, destined from the outset to be reclaimed by gravity, all presidencies reach their zenith and begin to gradually decline.

Tracking the precise point at which a president begins to fall back to earth in his second term is part political science, part intuition, and every bit a favorite Washington pastime.

And now the whispers have started in the aftermath of President Clinton's failure to win congressional approval for "fast track" trade negotiating authority. Is he losing power? Has he become a lame duck?

Perhaps, say a few analysts of the office. But others say it's far too soon to make that call - and that fast track was a complicated, atypical issue.

What the vote really revealed was that there are few "Clintonite" lawmakers who will follow the president's lead, say analysts. Furthermore, Mr. Clinton's penchant for centrist issues, such as free trade and welfare reform, has alienated many liberals in his own party.

"[Clinton] hasn't built up a base for the Democratic Party, and he hasn't built up a grass-roots following in the country," says Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University here.

Issue by issue

That leaves Clinton in a peculiar position a year before midterm elections. He has factions of support and opposition, sometimes in equal measure, within both parties, depending on the issue.

As a result, if he is to remain viable on the legislative front, Clinton will be more dependent than ever on the use of issue-driven coalitions rather than traditional party alliances.

"Politics have become more issue-specific," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "He [Clinton] is going to find himself with Democrats on some issues and with Republicans on" others.

"It means he has to work more," says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "He'll have to create majority coalitions himself."

That reality dims prospects for final epic battles the administration faces in reforming Medicare and Social Security.

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