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Unmet Goals Beset Clinton at Midterm

Unmet Goals Beset Clinton at Midterm. FIRST OF TWO PARTS


WASHINGTON — It wasn't supposed to be this way.

President Clinton rode into office 22 months ago on a wave of popular hope and a burst of optimism among Democrats that, after a generation of political exile, their party once again had a chance to restore itself in the eyes of America's voters.

Instead, as voters prepare to go to the polls to deliver their verdict on his party, even Clinton's own aides concede that his effort to restore Americans' faith in activist government and to create a dominant new Democratic coalition has unequivocally failed. Instead of nailing down the final pieces of a stable, new Democratic majority, Clinton has spent the closing days of the campaign desperately trying to scare the remnants of the old Democratic coalition out to the polls.

His effort may work, at least in part. Republicans may or may not succeed in capturing control of at least one house of Congress in Tuesday's election. Clinton may or may not succeed two years from today in winning reelection, although most political strategists in both parties think his potential challengers look far stronger in prospect than they will turn out to be in an actual head-to-head contest.

Even if the President avoids political disaster, he will awaken Wednesday with his larger goals still in tatters: Public cynicism about government stands at an all-time high, doubts about government's ability to solve the nation's problems remain as deep as ever and Democrats have made no noticeable progress toward expanding their support beyond the 43% that Clinton won in his election two years ago.

What went wrong?

That question has been on the minds of many of Clinton's aides and advisers, who believe that his twin goals remain achievable in the long term. They have already begun analyzing why things got so badly off track--trying to determine how, after the election, they can start over.

The Clinton presidency, Administration officials and both Democratic and Republican strategists agree, might have been far different up to this point but for three critical strategic blunders:

* The failure to make crucial policy choices during the transition to office two years ago.

* The decision to subordinate all other issues in the interests of winning congressional support for a health care reform plan that turned out to be politically unfeasible.

* The inability to publicly articulate a rationale for the Administration's foreign policy.

Of course, not all of Clinton's problems can be traced to his own errors. The Republican opposition made an unusually well-disciplined and intense effort to block the President on most major issues. On one crucial issue, the economy, Clinton has also suffered politically from trends--particularly the decline in incomes for non-college-educated workers--that lie well outside the short-term control of any chief executive.

Moreover, the flaws in Clinton's own character that have led many citizens to mistrust him and that dominated political conversation in the first several months of this year lie largely outside the control of the White House, or at least of its staff.

And the public's souring on government did not begin with Clinton. From the mid-1980s through the onset of the last recession, roughly 40% of respondents told pollsters they believed that the government did the right thing most of the time. By the time George Bush left office, that number had substantially eroded, although Clinton has been unable to rebuild it. Last year, only 19% of those queried by the ABC News/Washington Post poll said they thought government did the right thing most of the time. Last month, only 21% said so.

But even allowing for all those problems, Administration officials and political strategists interviewed in recent weeks agree that the White House has not always been its own best friend.

On the towering issue of health care reform, many aides now openly criticize both the timing and the substance of the Administration plan--a surprising turn, considering the prominent role that First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton played in putting it together.

Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, for example, says he accepts the criticism leveled by outside critics that Clinton erred by pushing a health care plan that would have expanded the role of government before he had convinced Americans that he had improved the government's ability to handle its existing tasks.

"In hindsight," Panetta said in a recent interview, "it would have been better if we had taken on welfare reform and other reform issues" before diving into health care. By taking on those subjects--reforming parts of the government that the public considers failures--Clinton could have consolidated his support and sent a message "that this President is a centrist," Panetta said.

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