Clinton a man for his time

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The Independent Online
THE Little Rock economic summit suggested much about how President-elect Bill Clinton will govern as well as his plans for the economy. The overwhelming impression is of a man able to listen, absorb, teach, and expand the boundaries of the possible.

In convening this summit, Mr Clinton took a big gamble. An event such as this could have degenerated either into fractious discord or a stiff, scripted media stunt. But Mr Clinton made it an authentic defining moment, thanks to his own mastery of detail and genuine self-assurance in the company of smart, diverse people.

For an event sponsored by Democrats, the summit was also mercifully free of special pleading and haranguing. Even the representatives of interest groups - minorities, trade unionists, advocates for the poor, the handicapped, the elderly - spoke less as special claimants than as members of a coalition urging Mr Clinton to define a national interest.

As for the economy, the conference provided no final decisions, but broad hints of what is to come. Mr Clinton carefully chose as lead presenters Robert Solow of MIT and James Tobin of Yale, two Nobel Prize-winning economists best known for their insistence that the economy's main problem is slow growth not public sector borrowing.

The conference did give time to two champions of deficit reduction, Henry Aaron, the Brookings economist, and John White. But in a telling detail, Mr Clinton personally intervened to elevate Robert Eisner, the Northwestern University economist who is the nation's leading debunker of deficit-reduction fever, from the audience to the panel.

His appointment of Laura D'Andrea Tyson, the Berkeley economist, to chair the Council of Economic Advisers reinforces the impression that Mr Clinton views the real economic challenge as reform of complex institutions. Ms Tyson is the first woman to hold the post, but far more significant than her gender is the fact that she is the first chief economic adviser whose main professional interests are trade, technology, industry, and worker training, not the business cycle.

While Ms Tyson has taught macro- economics, she is not primarily a macro-economist: her appointment has given the shivers to the high theorists of that sub-discipline, who had anticipated that the CEA job would go, as usual, to one of their number. In the past, the CEA has filtered out interventionist economic proposals emanating from other branches of the government. Under Ms Tyson, it will facilitate them.

Throughout the session, Mr Clinton kept coming back to his own passion, the longer-term challenges of structural reform - the need for great change in the system of banking, health care, industrial relations, schooling and training, and the shift from a Cold War economy.

Mr Clinton also rejected the orthodox counsel to slash social spending, noting that for all the talk of 'entitlements' being out of control, the biggest budget-buster is rising health- care costs. Here Mr Clinton embraced the paradox that the best strategy to curb health costs is to make entitlement to health cover universal.

Yet if Mr Clinton often seemed surprisingly liberal, he also sounded comfortably conservative on issues where the country is conservative. The discussions of poverty emphasised work, not the dole. His repeated descriptions of his own frustrations as a sitting governor with the red tape emanating from Washington charmed the business leaders in attendance; they sensed a fellow-sufferer who understood.

The corporate executives, many of them Republicans, reciprocated with a rare display of social conscience. Harold 'Red' Poling, chief executive of Ford, startled the gathering by calling for a gasoline tax.

Discussing goals at a two-day summit, of course, is much easier than enacting them. Still, one came away from Little Rock impressed, even uplifted. Dozens of the 329 participants were Republicans who had voted for Bush, and several more were liberal Democrats who were initially sceptical of Mr Clinton. Yet in hundreds of conversations, the word I kept hearing was 'astonishing'.

After 12 years of having leaders who could not say 'Good morning' without a cue-card, people were stunned at Mr Clinton's range, grasp of detail, and capacity to define common ground. It is rare on our side of the Atlantic to have a president who casually urges his audience to consult serious books that he has obviously read and enjoyed. We no longer have to be embarrassed for our president.

One senses a fortuitous marriage between the man and his times. America's economic woes present a challenge of arduous politics and daunting technical complexity - two realms in which Mr Clinton excels.

In seeking consensus for long-deferred reforms, Mr Clinton is fortunate that America is less divided than at any time in the three decades since the Kennedy presidency. All over America, young people feel there is a new sense of possibility in public life that they have only encountered before in history books. It promises to be an electric hundred days.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of 'The American Prospect', a new liberal magazine. He is also a syndicated columnist and author of several books.

Bailey Morris is on holiday.