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Clinton reinvents himself with all-American image

With an election next year, the President takes a leaf from Reagan's book
A NEW t-shirt on sale in Washington shows two mug shots of President Bill Clinton, one head-on, one in profile. "Wanted for impersonating a president," it reads. "Considered dangerous to the American way of life."

How well Mr Clinton manages to escape the perception that he is simply not up to his job will determine, as much as anything else, whether he keeps it for a second term beyond the 1996 presidential election.

The question has acquired new urgency this week following announcements by Jack Kemp and Dan Quayle, Republicans both, that contrary to speculation they would not be running for the presidency because they could not bear the indignity of going cap in hand around the country scrounging funds from big business.

The buzz now among Washington's professionally opinionated classes is whether Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, will take part, challenging Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, for the Republican nomination. As is customary in America, the presidential race has been on since the presidential inauguration. But with only 91 weeks to go things are hotting up.

Across the Atlantic Ladbrokes on Friday offered odds of 5 to 2 on Mr Clinton winning, 3 to 1 on Mr Dole. Within the bubble that is Washington the punters are watching the incumbent's form with ever keener interest. Every public appearance President Clinton makes, every word he utters, every White House initiative is subjected to the keenest electability test.

A columnist in Sunday's Washington Post humbly acknowledged that the pundits had failed miserably to judge the mood of the nation in rubbishing - as they almost unanimously did - Mr Clinton's folksily inconsequential State of the Union address on 24 January. In fact, as the inevitable day- after polls showed, the people loved it. Undeterred, the Post columnist went on to volunteer the thought that Mr Clinton's handling of the thorny financial crisis in Mexico, when he bypassed the Republican-held Congress and drummed up $20bn (£13bn) in loan money from the White House coffers, had made him look "presidential" - a word the author went on to use twice more in the same piece.

And an important word it is too for American electionologists, especially in the post-Cold War era. For the demise of the evil empire has diminished the importance of the American presidency, whose greatest powers have traditionally resided in defence and foreign policy. The president is no longer the centurion at the gate, defending the American Way of Life against the barbarian threat. As far as most Americans are concerned, Washington is a far-off place whose vain, Byzantine power games bear little relevance to their everyday concerns. It is the state or local governments which guide policy on the real issues, on schooling, health, crime prevention, garbage collection.

All of which means that when ordinary Americans vote for a president next year they will vote, above all, for a symbol. Of course, the state of the economy matters too. Not so much in the end the abstruse question of the federal deficit, which animates Mr Gingrich so much, as whether Americans are feeling more or less prosperous, whether they have more or less disposable income. Barring an unexpected economic downturn, the biggest problem Mr Clinton will face is persuading the American people that he looks the part.

"He must look decisive, courageous, as a man of vision, as a winner, as a strong leader," says Lenny Glynn, one of Mr Clinton's speechwriters during the 1992 election campaign. "He should come across as the dad of the American Dream, solid, amiable and righteous." Mr Clinton needs, in short, to act more like Ronald Reagan. In contrast to Margaret Thatcher's standing today in Britain, Reagan is regarded by the fine minds of the chattering Washington establishment as "a great president", no matter that he manifestly lacked Mr Clinton's substantial intellectual gifts.

Clinton "the policy wonk" must vanish from the public eye, say the Democratic Party's presidential image makers. As must Clinton the ditherer; Clinton the gay rights advocate; and Clinton the henpecked husband - an image which went down particularly badly with the "angry white males" who, as the polls and the statistics showed, were chiefly responsible for the anti-Clinton vote swing which gave the Democrats their hammering in November's mid-term congressional elections.

In his task of reinventing himself as an all-American man's man, Mr Clinton is, paradoxically, assisted by the Republicans' seizure of both houses of Congress. "The painful lesson is that you define yourself by who you fight," he was quoted as saying in Bob Woodward's book, The Agenda, four months into his presidency.

The partnership with Congress now over, he has an opportunity to veto Republican measures, to stand out as the unchallenged voice of Democratic leadership in the capital city, to appear clear-minded and tough.

In recent weeks he has started doing these things. His bold action on the Mexico bail-out and the popular State of the Union address edged him closer towards the apple pie ideal. As did his intervention last week in the baseball dispute between players and team owners which threatens to deprive Americans of their second baseball season in a row: he proposed that Congress pass legislation allowing a neutral, binding arbitrator to step in; Messrs Gingrich and Dole, doing themselves scant electoral service, said no. Withdrawing Hillary Clinton, "the Wicked Witch of the West Wing", from the public eye has also helped assuage white male anger.

"Every impression between now and November next year will count towards the election result," says Mr Glynn. "It's like the build-up of a coral reef. If you get the impressions right, everything crystallises on election day."

To that end, Mr Clinton has arranged a game of golf in Palm Springs, California, on Wednesday with Bob Hope and former presidents George Bush and Gerald Ford. Win or lose, President Clinton won't mind so long as the choreography turns out right, so long as some of the old stagers' gravitas rubs off on him and the television pictures fix an image in American minds of a man who can stand alongside real presidents and look like a president himself.