WASHINGTON — A day after angrily stalking away from reporters because a question offended him, President Clinton returned to the podium Tuesday in a full-dress press conference and defended his decision-making style.
"This is the most decisive presidency you've had in a very long time on all the big issues that matter," Clinton said.
The lively 28 minutes of give-and-take showed Clinton's determination to recapture control of the national agenda, which seemed to have galloped beyond his grasp in recent weeks in a harrowing succession of image blunders, late-night deal-making and melodramatic personnel moves from which White House officials are determined to show they are recovering.
To that end, Clinton, who has often appeared defensive and edgy over press questions, repeatedly turned critical questions into opportunities for an energetic defense of his record.
To an early question about apparent "wavering" on matters both foreign and domestic, for example, Clinton responded: "I might say all the heat we're getting from people is because of the decisions that have been made, not because of those that haven't."
And he ticked off in campaign style a series of accomplishments for which he wishes to take credit, from "unemployment under 7% for the first time in a year and a half" and "a 20-year low in interest rates" to the passage of family leave and "motor-voter" legislation and the recent signing of the global biodiversity treaty.
"That's a pretty good and decisive record," he said.
Clinton insisted that he had not made a diplomatic retreat on the Bosnia question but that European leaders had simply rejected his proposed solution to the crisis. He disputed a suggestion that he had embarrassed Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen G. Breyer by dangling a Supreme Court seat before them and then yanking it away. He denied that he had undercut House Democrats who voted for his now-abandoned energy tax.
And he issued an only somewhat veiled warning to Republican senators that they could be blamed for perpetuating Washington gridlock if they persist in filibustering Administration initiatives.
Noting that a filibuster is blocking action on a campaign finance reform bill--the Senate failed Tuesday in a second attempt to break the filibuster--Clinton said "the thing that particularly troubles me" is that several of the filibustering senators had voted for a similar bill only last year "when there was a Republican in the White House."
The suggestion that Republicans are blocking legislative progress for purely partisan reasons is one that White House officials hope will turn to their advantage if the filibusters continue on future issues, such as health care.
At the end of the 25-minute session, questions about Clinton's decision-making still loomed, particularly in the wake of the tortuous nomination experience of C. Lani Guinier for a senior Justice Department post and the still-unresolved negotiations over the $500-billion deficit-reduction bill.
But it was clear that the White House, advised by Clinton's new counselor, the politically ambidextrous David Gergen, was doing its best to get back on the offense, emphasizing the positive and trying to avoid past antagonisms with the press.
After an opening statement, Clinton turned to ABC's Brit Hume, who had asked the question Monday that roused the President's ire. The President graciously offered Hume the first question, joking that what he was "really upset" about was that the recently married Hume had gotten a two-week honeymoon while Clinton had not been granted the political honeymoon usually afforded new presidents.
From that point on, Clinton successfully deflected difficult questions about his relations with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has expressed dissatisfaction with some Administration moves, his plans for an Air Force general who reportedly called Clinton a draft-dodger and a womanizer during a recent speech and the deviations of his policy on Bosnia.
In each case, following the time-honored traditions of political communications as practiced by Gergen's previous clients--Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan, Gerald R. Ford and Richard Nixon--Clinton answered the question of his choice--not necessarily the question that was asked. Or he questioned the assumption behind a troublesome question and defended his actions as consistent with past policies and principles.
Answering a question about unhappiness among House Democrats who are said to believe that the President sold them out in the Senate after asking them to cast a difficult vote in favor of an energy tax, Clinton reiterated the basic principles underlying his deficit-reduction plan.
The Senate Finance Committee, which is now considering the plan, "has some tough decisions to make," the President said. "I don't expect to agree with all of them but I think they will produce a bill."
He indicated that he would reserve his major negotiating efforts for the conference committee that will resolve the differences between the Senate and House versions of his budget.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats on the Finance Committee moved closer to agreement on a compromise economic plan, including a gasoline tax increase of about 6 cents a gallon, as a Friday deadline loomed for committee approval of Clinton's agenda.
"We're very close--only a vote away," said Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) flatly predicted that the Senate would approve a deficit-reduction package next week after the committee approves it this week.
Times staff writers Thomas B. Rosenstiel and William J. Eaton contributed to this story.
* AIR STRIKES DEFENDED: Clinton also cautions U.N. on Somali civilian deaths. A4