Play it in another key, Bill: After 100 days, a battered president must show the character for the job, says Rupert Cornwell

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The Independent Online
DELIVERING a verdict when the trial has scarcely begun is as absurd and unfair in politics as it would be in a court of law. But in part, at least, Bill Clinton has brought judgement upon himself. In his first 100 days, he insisted again and again during the campaign, he would present a programme to change the country. Today that most cliched milestone of government arrives. To Mr Clinton's misfortune, it coincides with the roughest period of his presidency.

The bright-eyed idealism of Inauguration Day seems a century ago. Of late, the White House has resembled a sullen fortress; one day dispelling the impression of avoiding responsibility for Waco, the next vainly seeking to minimise the import of the crushing Congressional defeat of his economic stimulus package, the next straining to show that Washington is not fiddling while Bosnia burns. Summing up that week of woes, the New York Times described the administration's performance as a 'blind stagger'. Mr Clinton's approval rating, at barely 50 per cent, is the lowest recorded by a modern President so early in his first term.

That meagre figure is, however, the least of this President's troubles. Since 20 January, Mr Clinton has indeed set his country on a new course designed to banish laissez-faire Reaganism to the history books. For better or worse, involved and interventionist government is back. At last, an administration is tackling head-on the soaring budget deficits and health-care costs. To the ire of conservatives, it has moved to lift curbs on abortion, strike laws and homosexual rights.

How different from four years ago, when George Bush coasted high in the polls, thanks to the do-nothing policy that would ultimately prove his downfall. Mr Clinton has acted. Indeed it could be argued that if the 43 per cent he won last November is the baseline, he has actually improved his position - notwithstanding almost daily broadsides from Ross Perot, as vocal a presence now as when he mounted the most powerful independent bid for the White House in 80 years. Mr Clinton's true difficulties at this ritual moment of stocktaking are not with the polls; if his honeymoon has been so brief, the reason lies in a curious, yet potentially deadly, absence of authority.

Even after 100 days, the gravitas of the presidency has somehow not fully enveloped Bill Clinton. Sometimes, as when he visited the aircraft carrier Roosevelt last month, in slacks and a crumpled windcheater, he simply does not look the part. At others, such as the White House prevarication over Waco, shades of the 'Slick Willie' of Arkansas fame return. Should the man who is Commander-in-Chief have first engaged the military over the issue of gays in the armed services? Then there is the cloying search for 'diversity', which continues to hold up hundreds of senior appointments and raises suspicion that this President's main goal is to please every pressure group in town.

It is better, Machiavelli wrote, for a prince to be feared than loved. But Bill Clinton is, and ever has been, a man who wants to be loved. Compromise, consensus and conciliation are the three Cs of his political vocabulary. Such qualities do not make opponents quake. Congress certainly does not fear him; neither do the Republicans, who did not hesitate to block his economic stimulus package; nor, increasingly, the left-wing Democrats and sundry special-interest groups, who may yet combine to rip the heart out of his deficit-cutting programme.

The astonishingly candid musings this week of his budget director presage even worse. If it voted today, predicted Leon Panetta, Congress would approve neither the North American Free Trade Agreement nor the dollars 1.6bn of aid promised to Russia at the Vancouver summit. He also urged Mr Clinton to defer the health-care reforms due to be presented next month, suggesting his boss might 'define his priorities more clearly'.

Naturally, such thinking aloud by a key insider did not delight the White House. None the less, Mr Panetta touched an essential. There are two sides to Bill Clinton. One is the student of power who knows that success means keeping it simple, who famously promised to 'concentrate like a laser beam on the economy'. The other is the policy addict, a prisoner of the very breadth of his knowledge. When clarity of goal prevails, Clinton is at his best; witness his economic address to congress in February or his masterful handling of the Vancouver meeting with Boris Yeltsin.

All too easily, though, the wood is lost for the trees. This is the undisciplined Clinton who thrives on endless meetings to fine-tune policy details, unwilling to decide until the intellectual in him is satisfied. There is a touch of this in the dithering over Bosnia, which has reinforced the image of a man unable, as George Bush used to say, of making the 'tough calls'. Perhaps this also accounts for the wildly fluctuating perceptions of this complicated President.

Even after 100 days of the most relentless public scrutiny on earth, Bill Clinton has not wholly come into focus. One moment it is Clinton the bungler, the next Clinton the master strategist. For now, the New York Times judgement is in vogue; next week he may have redeemed himself. The presidency, after all, is a learning process, and the current incumbent is nothing if not a quick study. But some damaging impressions are already solidifying - not least that many of his youthful staff have still to realise that the 1992 campaign is over.

This is a White House that shows signs of confusing performance with perpetual motion, suffused with a macho culture of 30-year-old aides vying to work the longest hours. There is a touch of arrogance, too, especially in their dealings with the press room in the West Wing. Why, they ask, should we play by the old rules? A strategy of deliberately bypassing the traditional national media in favour of the 'New News' of satellite hook- ups, chat shows and town hall meetings worked wonders during the campaign. And it is still the preferred style of a man who visibly chafes at confinement in his elegant lodgings at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 'I stiffed you,' boasted Clinton at a recent dinner of Washington's media mighty, reminding them how he triumphed last autumn.

The disdain is mutual. 'It's like coming home late and finding the kids have been at the liquor cabinet,' grumbled one veteran reporter. On their own, such complaints are trifles. Workaholics rather than alcoholics, the Clinton people may none the less find they have been careless in their choice of enemies. The campaign policy of carrying the message directly to a more sympathetic public still works reasonably well. Sooner or later, however, bad reviews in the national media will shape the grassroots perception of the Clinton presidency.

Nothing yet is irretrievably lost. The demise of the economic stimulus bill has been an object lesson in how not to take Congress for granted, an astonishing mistake that Mr Clinton will surely not make again. Why, one asks, did this master of gentle persuasion choose confrontation and thus seal Republican opposition to his plans? He may well take Mr Panetta's advice and postpone the health plan until his economic programme is safely on the statute book. Who knows, he may even project some of his legendary charm in the direction of the Washington press corps. And whatever else, life will not be boring.

In a mere 100 days, Bill Clinton has embarked on more than George Bush did in 1,000. The next three months will offer no less - starting with proposals on community service for student loans and reform of the pernicious US system of campaign finance. Ultimately all hinges on his authority. Under a constitution that invests its chief executive with less power than meets the eye, Theodore Roosevelt's celebrated definition of the presidency as 'bully pulpit' becomes vital. Mr Clinton's intellectual leadership is beyond question. Whether he has the character, be it to intimidate or inspire, remains to be seen.

(Photograph omitted)