"I think that early on in my term I underestimated the importance of trying to take certain times and really make clear to the American people what I believe and where we were going," he added.
"It's a very important aspect of the job, the other side of the presidency," Clinton said in another recent conversation.
Or, as he described the situation in a recent speech in New York, "we almost have two tasks."
"We've got this sort of, these rational challenges. You know, get the deficit down, get investment up. Train the work force better, expand trade, do things that will work." But at the same time, Clinton said, he sees a need to address larger issues "underneath" the rational surface, particularly "the fact that year in and year out we are losing an enormous percentage of our people to our common future and that they in turn are making the rest of us much more miserable and less free and less hopeful in our own lives."
In focusing on such larger issues, most of which have at their core the element of personal accountability, Clinton runs a risk that goes beyond incongruous echoes of his own past conduct: the risk of seeming to promise far more than he can deliver.
On the basic economic issue that he has sought to address--reversing 20 years of stagnant wages for middle-class workers--Clinton has taken on a problem that involves a host of perplexing causes, from troubles with American education to the globalization of economic competition. On issues such as the rise of out-of-wedlock births, his target takes in not only government programs like welfare but also the vast social changes of the last generation.
Clinton repeatedly reminds his listeners that reversing those trends will take time. "We do not have to do it overnight," he said in one recent speech. But his Republican opponents already have argued that his rhetoric about rebuilding the security of America's neighborhoods and the dignity of work outshines the programs he supports.
Administration initiatives "have tended to open well on the strength of the President's personal advocacy and then to falter as revealed details make plain his attachment to traditional, big-government, tax-and-spend liberalism," argued Republican strategist William Kristol.
Not surprisingly, Clinton's advisers disagreed with that analysis, although they conceded the risk. "Clinton has a vision and the public has come to see him as visionary. But if it is not tied to effectiveness, it is seen as political," said Clinton's pollster and adviser Stanley B. Greenberg.
Nonetheless, Clinton aides--and outside students of the presidency as well--believe that the new emphasis is correct. Indeed, at a dinner earlier this fall at the White House, a group of roughly a dozen leading historians, political scientists and sociologists urged Clinton to spend more of his energy on using the President's bully pulpit to shape the national agenda and give Americans a sense of the future rather than to push the details of specific legislation.
The academics, brought together by Greenberg, a former Yale professor, met the next day with Clinton's top aides and advisers and emphasized similar points.
"The message was that the success of presidents isn't often defined by legislation; several said it was rarely defined by legislation," said Clinton aide Mandy Grunwald, who attended both gatherings.
Paradoxically, while that lesson is one that Clinton often seemed to resist earlier this year and last, he actually began his presidential campaign emphasizing broad themes--the need for the Democratic Party to restore its ties to the middle class and the need for the country to heal its divisions of race and refocus on common purposes.
A speech late in 1991 to the same church convention he addressed in November, for example, became an occasion for an impassioned oration about the need for healing society's wounds.
But as the 1992 campaign developed, Clinton and his strategists encountered a sour popular mood, a public grown cynical of political promises and demanding "specifics." As a result, during much of his campaign, Clinton unleashed his policy side, staging town meetings at which he would spew forth fugal answers to voters' questions--complete with intertwined four-part themes and variations.
In the later stages of the campaign, under constant prodding from advisers, Clinton began to simplify his message once again.
But even on the night of his election, campaign Communications Director George Stephanopoulos had to remind him to avoid being "too programmatic" in his victory speech. And once in office, Clinton reverted quickly to his "wonk" form.
Because of that, Clinton came to appear trapped in the morass of legislative detail he was proposing and polls showed the public deeply confused about his larger purposes.
By contrast, as the year ends, a series of polls have shown the public more favorably disposed toward Clinton.