Leading Article: Clinton goes to the people

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AFTER only three weeks in the White House, Bill Clinton says that he has already discovered how easy it is for a president to get out of touch. That is supposedly why he went to Detroit on Wednesday for an electronic 'town hall meeting' linked by satellite to studio audiences in Seattle, Miami and Atlanta. He performed superbly, answering questions with fluency and displaying his usual formidable command of every subject raised. He was clearly in his element, glad to be away from the troubles that have accumulated around him in Washington.

As an instrument of government, the electronic town hall or market-place seems set to develop. American presidents have always needed direct contact with the electorate because their institutional power is so limited. Radio was used to great effect by President Roosevelt. Television has proved still more powerful in skilful hands. President Reagan was a master of the direct appeal to the electorate over the heads of those in Congress.

But that communication was all one way. Modern technology is fast making possible a more interactive relationship. Phone-ins and multiple studio audiences are only early steps. Around the next corner lurks the voting button attached to every television set, already envisaged by Ross Perot in his anti- establishment campaign. That would enable presidents - or anyone else with access - to put direct questions to mass audiences or to mobilise instant support for policies.

This, if it comes about, will test the institutions of government in every democracy. In the hands of demagogues it could be extremely dangerous, subverting institutional checks and balances. So far, President Clinton's experiment looks benign. He is neither listening passively to the voice of the people, which is the danger inherent in opinion polls, nor seeking to overturn their judgement, but conducting the nearest thing to a dialogue that is possible in the circumstances.

He based his entire campaign on the largely justified claim that he was more closely in contact with the concerns of the people than was President Bush. He now needs to exploit that asset to the full in order to push through the radical changes he has promised in economic management, healthcare and other sensitive areas.

The fact that his own party commands Congress will not in itself give him his way. There are no party machines in Congress, nor automatic loyalties to the President. There is merely another sort of market-place in which favours are traded among individuals beholden to local interest groups and fighting for local issues. A president who wants real change must capture the mood of the country before Congress will listen.

The moment for this is ideal because the entire political establishment has seldom been more unpopular among the voters. The electronic town hall is a means which happens perfectly to suit the President's talents. It is more effective than the prepared speech, and it bypasses the Washington press corps, which tends to be obsessed by the search for a quick story on the scandal of the day. But it will not be enough on its own. President Clinton will still need to learn the skills of operating in Washington, and he will find it risky in the long run to keep his door closed against the White House journalists. He needs every ally he can find.