Bill's excellent week does him a power of good: President Clinton's recent run of successes came just when he needed them most after a faltering start, Patrick Cockburn writes from Washington

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Bill Clinton has always prided himself on his political resilience, but three weeks ago - after American troops were forced to turn tail in Somalia and Haiti - he was beginning to sound rattled. 'You get no credit around here for fighting and bleeding,' he said. 'And that's why the know-nothings and the do-nothings and the negative people and the right- wingers always win.'

The energy with which Mr Clinton fought to win the vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement last week showed his desperate need for a victory. At the Pacific Rim summit in Seattle, White House aides were embarrassingly fulsome in boosting the event's significance. 'You get the feeling that you really are present at another creation,' one Clinton adviser said.

Mr Clinton compared the significance to the US of getting Nafta through the House of Representatives and the Seattle meeting to the Declaration of Independence and the rise of the civil rights movement. US voters may take this with a pinch of salt but there is no doubt Mr Clinton has had a good week.

The ease with which he is bouncing back is partly because his record was never as bad as it was painted. In Congress this year he got his way on 88.6 per cent of legislation, the highest success rate of any president since Dwight Eisenhower in 1953.

Mr Clinton also seems to be having some luck. Immediately after his inauguration he was badly damaged by his attempt to end the ban on homosexuals in the military. Last week a Washington appeal court ordered the navy to reinstate a midshipman forced to resign because he said he was homosexual. By saying his dismissal was unconstitutional the court moved very close to Mr Clinton's original and much-criticised position.

Yesterday afternoon Mr Clinton announced he had persuaded American Airlines and their flight staff to return to the bargaining table, ending a strike that was disrupting Thanksgiving travel plans for thousands of Americans.

The President's resurgence is also making the Republicans nervous. On Saturday their leadership in the Senate dropped their filibuster against the Brady Bill, making handgun purchasers wait five days for background checks before they take away their weapon. By vigorously espousing gun control Mr Clinton made Republicans fear they were being tarred as creatures of the gun lobby.

Do these victories mean Mr Clinton is at last consolidating his power? Certainly he has a right to complain his setbacks have been exaggerated by the media and political elite. Recently he said 'this town is more conservative than I thought, more fixed, more averse to change'.

But certain of his weaknesses will not go away. Polls during the election campaign last year showed he was not widely trusted by voters, but they trusted President Bush even less.

Secondly, the Democratic party has traditionally been more divided than the Republicans. Mr Clinton's strength in the election was that as a Southern Democrat he could win votes among white middle-class Protestants, particularly in border and Southern states. At the same time he was able to hold on to the core Democratic vote among blacks, union members, Jews and professional women. But this coalition is now looking very ragged.

Finally, there is Mr Clinton himself. He is deeply sensitive to the accusation that he is an opportunist. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine he said: 'If you convince (the public) I don't have any conviction, that's fine, but it's a damn lie.' The problem is that what appears to Mr Clinton to be tactically adroit often appears to others to be a sign of rootlessness.

Victory over Nafta proved that, as was shown in the election campaign last year, Mr Clinton is endlessly combative and does not get demoralised. Seattle was more of an exercise in public relations but will help the White House to shift media attention away from Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments