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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While the staff can be blamed for some of the confusion, even his closest advisers insist that Clinton is a big part of the problem. "A lot of it can't be laid at anyone's doorstep but his own," said one last week. Democratic Party elders admit to being stunned by Clinton's judgment lately. Having his $200 haircut and allowing a Hollywood producer to work out of a White House office and then intervene on behalf of friends to win White House air-charter business have done serious damage to his public standing. "The best politician the Democratic Party has turned up in a long time turns out to have a tin ear," said a longtime friend. "He has squandered his moral authority with a lot of this stuff. It leads people to say, 'This man isn't really a populist; he is a phony, a fraud.' And though this perception is completely wrong in substance, it is enormously damaging and has to be dealt with. He has to regain the moral authority to call people to sacrifice."

The same officials say Clinton has spent too much time courting the left wing of the Democratic Party when he should be building ties to the middle. After promising to cut taxes on the middle class and "end welfare as we know it," Clinton has proposed a host of tax increases and disguised hefty new spending programs as "investments." Rather than reduce entitlements, he nearly succeeded in creating a program to provide free immunization for children, regardless of income. Asked last week if Clinton really was a "New Democrat," Oklahoma Senator David Boren replied, "That's the $64,000 question. We just don't know."

Just as troubling is Clinton's apparent resistance to discipline. He has extended automatic walk-in rights to the Oval Office -- a privilege that is heavily restricted by most Presidents -- to nearly a dozen people: Hillary, McLarty, Lindsey, Gore, Stephanopoulos, Neel, Nussbaum, economic chief Bob Rubin, personal assistant Nancy Hernreich and National Security Adviser Tony Lake. The open-door policy has forced him to be his own chief of staff and caused the White House to move in too many directions at once, with little coordination.

Clinton promised to refocus his presidency on the economy after his $16 billion stimulus package was defeated in the Senate in April. But this vow proved short-lived: his aides bombarded House leaders last week with demands that they take action next month on enterprise zones, a crime bill and a community bank-lending measure. When a Democratic lawmaker asked the President last week to "stop the policy-a-day nonsense," the room full of lawmakers burst into applause.

In public Clinton is little better: his speeches continue to be leviathan, rambling affairs, the result of his tendency to veer from his text as much as he sticks to it. Oval Office meetings that should take a few minutes often go on for hours. A brief update session last month on potential Supreme Court nominees that was scheduled to last 10 minutes dragged on for two hours as Clinton talked through the philosophies of various candidates. "He really loves the intellectual give-and-take," said an official. "But the time pressures and political pressures are such that he can't afford that anymore."

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