That Sinking Feeling

Is Clinton up to the job? As a staff shake-up begins and his four-month approval ratings dip to record lows, Americans are starting to wonder +

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Bill Clinton knew the House vote on his economic package was going to be close, but he didn't expect it to go down to the last 30 seconds.

As the House of Representatives began to vote on his $246 billion deficit- reduction plan last Thursday night, Clinton calculated that he had perhaps one or two votes more than the 217 he needed for passage. But halfway into the 15-minute voting period, two Democrats the White House thought it had won over, James Hayes of Alabama and Tim Johnson of South Dakota, voted nay. Instantly, Clinton's margin disappeared. On Capitol Hill a nervous Howard Paster, the top Clinton lobbyist, telephoned White House chief of staff Thomas ("Mack") McLarty in the Oval Office. Mack, he said, "what's happening to our strategy?"

McLarty told his boss the news, and in the next moment, Clinton saw his presidency pass before his eyes. His margin was evaporating, and with it faded his plans for cutting the deficit, reordering public priorities and overhauling the nation's health-care system. For a moment, Clinton looked utterly defeated. "I know the look in his eyes," said McLarty later. "It looked like 1980 ((when as Arkansas Governor he lost his first re-election bid)). It was a look of sadness and disappointment and anxiousness."

Then he snapped out of it. Clinton quickly telephoned Representative Billy Tauzin of Louisiana and promised to tinker with the energy tax. He called Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, who had been holding out all day: in return for a yes vote, he agreed to make additional spending cuts and shift his policies to the political center. McCurdy pressed McLarty in a separate call to see if Clinton would really deliver. "He gets it now," said the chief of staff. With 30 seconds left, McCurdy, Tauzin and several other holdouts fell in line. The final tally was 219-213; Clinton's package survived by a six-vote margin.

But Clinton's narrow victory is the only bright spot in a presidency that has been beset since its inception by miscalculations and self-inflicted wounds. Clinton, in fact, was still stumbling from the missteps of the preceding week. His balmy decision to have his hair trimmed on Air Force One by a Beverly Hills coiffeur put the presidential scalp in national headlines, while a cronyism scandal in the White House travel office pitted Clinton's staff against the Justice Department. Later Secretary of State Warren Christopher had to telephone news organizations to contradict a speech by a top aide who had stated in public what many had been saying in private for weeks: under Clinton, the U.S. was retreating from leadership in the world.

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