Leading Article: A turning point for the White House

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The Independent Online
UNPOPULAR American presidents do not normally get their way with Congress. Members of the legislature become reluctant to be associated with failure and distance themselves from the White House, fighting for re-election on local issues. Something different seems to be happening in President Bill Clinton's fight to reduce the budget deficit, which reaches a climax today. Although his approval rating has risen only slightly above 40 per cent, the betting last night was that his plan would scrape through. If it does, it will be his first major victory and a turning point in his presidency.

It will reflect not only his growing skill and determination in dealing with Congress but also a shift in some of the underlying political assumptions of the United States. The country has not had a balanced budget for 25 years. No recent president has been able to make a serious dent in it, largely because of the vested interests represented in Congress. Some liberal Democrats resisted cuts in welfare spending; representatives from districts with large military bases or defence plants rushed to defend them; and every proposed tax increase ran into well-organised opposition from the industries or groups most affected.

Mr Clinton has not been spared the same problems, and has had to water down parts of his plan, but he seems to be winning partly because Democratic congressmen are hearing from voters that if the paralysis in Washington continues they will suffer as much as the president. The voters do not want to pay higher taxes or see jobs lost in their districts, but they have come to accept that their country is drifting and that something must be done about the deficit, the burdens of welfare and the huge expense of a shamefully inadequate healthcare system.

Their restless impatience with conventional politics was expressed in the relatively large vote for Ross Perot in the presidential election and a swing against incumbents in the congressional elections. Mr Clinton, too, was elected largely because he promised change, including a serious attack on the deficit. Although he has disappointed those who voted for him, congressmen appear to be calculating that they would not be rewarded for damaging him still further. They need to demonstrate that there is some point in voting for Democrats under a president of the same party in order to end the paralysis of government. People could understand why a Democratic majority obstructed a Republican president. They find it less easy to understand why it should obstruct a Democratic president, even an unpopular one. They do not want a crippled president.

Some congressmen are also responsible enough to see the need for change whatever the short-term impact on their districts. They have even stiffened some parts of the programme. Senators have been less helpful, but also less obstructive than the President's unpopularity may have tempted them to be.

These are hopeful signs suggesting that Mr Clinton is beginning to rebuild the authority that he so recklessly squandered in the early days of his presidency. If he wins this week, and continues to reform the operations of the White House, he will be on his way towards a more effective presidency than seemed possible a few months ago.