In part, the unusual move is a further response to the ill-judged remarks last month of a top State Department official, who said that the US would be less assertive abroad because of economic problems at home. But it also appears to be part of a concerted press relations drive on the part of the administration to dispel growing fears that Mr Clinton is simply not up to the job.
One indication of this was the President's vigorous press conference here on Tuesday. It broke little new ground, but Mr Clinton took every opportunity to portray himself as a strong, unwavering leader, 'out here fighting for tough decisions'. The recent barrage of criticism, he claimed, was 'because of decisions that have been made, not because of those that haven't'
But both the President's unexpected appearance in the White House briefing room and Mr Christopher's missive are proof of the fact that impressions must be swiftly reversed; otherwise, prophecies of failure could become self-fulfilling. Nor was the State Department cable exactly a vibrant document, at least, according to the ambassadors quoted by the New York Times yesterday. Its language was defensive, and at least two of the nine 'accomplishments' mentioned - aid to Russia and US withdrawal from Somalia - are currently in jeopardy.
A poll in the Los Angeles Times yesterday underlined Mr Clinton's troubles. It said that a majority of Americans - 49 per cent against 42 per cent - disapproved of his performance in office. More than half of those questioned said they doubted that his package aimed at cutting the deficit would succeed, and that they disapproved of his handling of the economy.
None the less, it seems there is still hope for Mr Clinton. The poll suggests that the country at large may be less ready than the media-driven Washington hot-house to write him off. Only a quarter believe he is in 'serious long- term trouble.' Two-thirds ascribed his current difficulties to inexperience, and predicted that things would improve with time. Most were still inclined to blame his Republican predecessors in office for the economic woes that afflict America.
If the White House can avoid further blunders the moment could be right for a counter-attack. Mr Clinton's nomination of Judge Ruth Ginsburg to the Supreme Court has been widely praised, and Senate Democrats are close to agreement on their version of the budget package. This would replace the discarded energy tax with a less ambitious motor-fuels tax, and reduce government health care and social spending to make good lost revenue.
According to the President, the emerging Senate bill would meet his basic goal of dollars 500bn in deficit reduction over five years. But in the new form it is likely to take, it faces fierce resistance in the more liberal House of Representatives, whose 38 black Democrats have pledged 'non-negotiable' opposition to further welfare cuts.Reuse content