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 +

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 8)

After a week of desperately seeking advice on how best to right his troubled Administration, Clinton turned to an unexpected source for help: a Republican. On Saturday he tapped David Gergen, a veteran of the Nixon and Reagan White Houses, to join his staff. Gergen, a commentator, replaces communications director George Stephanopoulos as Clinton's top spokesman, and is expected to help Clinton emphasize the moderate, centrist themes on which he campaigned. Even this decision was made in typical Clinton fashion: without much warning, late at night, and with a last-minute O.K. from Hillary Rodham Clinton. In an interview with CNN on Saturday morning, Gergen quickly made it clear that he will work to reposition his new boss in the political middle. "I think the President wants to be more centrist," he said.

Stephanopoulos becomes a senior adviser to Clinton, responsible for managing the President's battles with Congress. Though the budget fight took the White House to the brink, staffers say they realize it is a walk in the park compared with either the looming budget battle in the Senate or the costly overhaul of the health-care system that Clinton wants Congress to consider as soon as its work on the budget is complete.

All that will have to be accomplished while Clinton's popularity with voters continues to decline. According to a new TIME/CNN poll, only 36% of the public approves of Clinton's handling of his job, a record low for a postwar President four months into his first term. Meanwhile, for the first time, fully 50% of the public disapproves of his performance as President. Dismayed by Clinton's preference for taxes over spending cuts, 58% of the public believes Clinton is a "tax-and-spend liberal." Such dismal ratings will make it easier for legislators to abandon the President in future contests. "At this moment," said a top political adviser, "nobody is afraid of him, and he has to find a way to change that."

Clinton can take heart from the fact that presidential popularity is an extremely volatile substance. George Bush won an 89% approval rating after the Gulf War in March 1991, but 10 months later it had dropped by half. Clinton can reflect that the polls can just as easily bounce the other way: he has plenty of time to recover from his error-filled start. Still, intimates say Clinton has been "sobered" by "how fast and how far he has fallen." Though most of them continue to insist the President seems to enjoy tough challenges, his advisers say they can detect the stress. Says one confidant: "He says he is fine. But he doesn't sound fine."

After months of light jabs, billionaire gadfly Ross Perot threw a wild, roundhouse punch last week, suggesting Bill Clinton is unqualified for high office and stating that he "wouldn't consider giving him a job anywhere above middle management." While Perot's characterization seems severe, the criticism about Clinton's administrative skills is echoed in private by some of his closest associates and colleagues. Said one, to whom Clinton turned last week for late-night advice: "His management style . . . just doesn't work at this level of government."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8