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On Presidential Power: Iron Fist vs. Velvet Glove : Politics: Clinton seems to buckle when pressured by just about any group. He calls it compromise. But Congress sees it as something else.

April 11, 1993|John Sears | John Sears, a political analyst, served as Ronald Reagan's campaign manager in 1976 and 1980

WASHINGTON — The robe of invincibility, which every new President dons on taking office, still rests comfortably on Bill Clinton's shoulders. But fewer than three months into his term, there is a flaw in the garment. A discernible loose end is dangling from the hem. As various interest groups have given it a little tug, it's gotten longer, leading to the perception that, if someone had enough courage, picked the correct time and had the proper issue, the entire robe might come undone, leaving Clinton revealed as the emperor who has no clothes.

You see, presidential power itself is only a perception. A President must force others to do what he wants. If he is seen too often doing what others want, the perception fades and he loses his power. Ultimately, the chorus of his critics, the unflattering accounts of his activities in the press and his protestations of it not being his fault that nothing has been accomplished result in his low standing in polls. But the first phase of this process is beginning now. For Clinton seems to be continually doing what others want.

Two weeks ago, the President was visited by a group of Democratic senators from Western states. They said they would not vote for his economic package as long as it contained higher fees for grazing cattle, cutting timber and mining minerals on federal lands. The next day, these higher fees were dropped from the bill, the Administration thus reneging on promises made to the environmental lobby. Conclusion: Clinton buckled.

It was soon after this that all 43 Republican members of the Senate banded together to filibuster the Administration's "economic stimulus" package. The Democratic leadership has tried on three occasions to break the filibuster, but has been no closer than five votes shy. By mutual consent, the Senate adjourned for the Easter recess without resolving this. As the senators left town, the White House was heard to say it was "willing to compromise." Washington insiders are now on the edge of their seats to see just how much "compromise" the seemingly powerless GOP Senate minority can command from Clinton.

The conclusion: He is buckling, and this time so publicly that he can be sure others, perhaps more powerful than the minority Republican members of the Senate, will pressure him in the future.

These two incidents are part of a pattern, for Clinton seems unable to stand firm on a decision. It became evident during the transition. After women activists and Latinos complained about not being well-represented on the Cabinet, Clinton made conciliatory appointments. Since taking office, he has reneged on his promises of a kinder and gentler policy toward Haitian refugees, presumably bowing to pressure from Southern Democrats. And on the matter of giving homosexuals equal treatment in the armed services, Clinton agreed to Sen. Sam Nunn's "request" that time be taken to study the matter. The conclusion in these cases: He buckled.

The President seems unaware of the danger he is in. Last week, in an attempt to show that the Administration could be "tough," the White House proudly leaked that they had punished Democratic Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama for criticizing Clinton's economic program. They took 900 National Aeronautics and Space Administration jobs from his state. Shelby proceeded to be the only Democrat to vote with the Republicans on their filibuster. And the GOP probably has 44 votes on most issues for the foreseeable future.

Political disloyalty should be punished, but there is no credit taken in this. Far better the sinner be forced to explain his sin, rather than allowing the people of Alabama to conclude that their President may be overly vindictive.

The key for a President to retain his power is that he leave no doubt, either by words or actions, as to exactly what his priorities are. Other items, not on the priority list, are assumed to be fair game for compromise.

By setting priorities, a President gives helpful guidance to Congress. If a President sends legislation to the Hill that is within the bounds of his priorities, members of his own party realize he is demanding their loyalty. If this is difficult, they can examine all items that are not priorities and find something helpful to them. However, only in extreme cases, after gaining permission from the President (presumably after a replacement vote is found in the other party), may they vote against their President.

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