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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The President has difficulty closing the deal. A recent health-care policy meeting dragged on for four hours, only to have him get up and leave the room without arriving at a decision. Last week Clinton met with three different groups of lawmakers at the White House to make his case for the budget plan. But in the session with freshmen Democrats, the pitch was all soft sell, and in the more important session with 30 Democratic whips, he never asked for the whips' support. That oversight staggered several who attended. "He didn't nail the whips," said a Congressman. "It shows that he is a little politically naive."

One quality of presidential character is knowing what you don't know. Ronald Reagan relied on James Baker, and George Bush turned to John Sununu, because both Presidents knew they lacked the rigor required to run the Executive Branch alone. Clinton refuses to admit that he cannot do it all himself. "They need someone who can maintain iron discipline, who will look at the schedule and take a red pen to anything that isn't about the economy," said a senior Democrat. But Clinton needs someone who can also discipline Clinton. Says a close friend of 25 years: "They've got to get somebody to manage the President, hands on, full time. This is a guy who has to be told to do his homework and eat his spinach and get to places on time."

Last Wednesday evening Christopher and longtime adviser Vernon Jordan met with Clinton and conveyed many of these same points (though Jordan reportedly used more pungent language). Late last week several senior White House officials said it was likely that New York lawyer Harold Ickes, who ran the Democratic Convention in New York City last summer, would join the White House staff in some capacity within a month. Already a frequent visitor to the White House, Ickes is regarded as someone whom Clinton trusts and who has the political acumen to stop the White House's free fall. But he will be able to do nothing if Clinton is not willing to be bridled. Said a top Cabinet official: "It doesn't matter if he changes his players if he doesn't change the way he does business."

Clinton's win in the House would have been broader had public opinion -- led by the deficit-reduction seminars conducted by Ross Perot and by Clinton at his December economic summit -- not moved far ahead of the President in January. The first sign that the Great Listener had lost touch with the public's willingness to sacrifice came in February, when Clinton unveiled a budget that delivered nearly $500 billion worth of deficit reductions but did so primarily through tax increases, not spending reductions. Then in April a $16 billion pork-laden "stimulus" package failed to win Senate approval. "The country moved ahead of us on spending cuts," said a Cabinet officer, "and most of the Congress is as surprised by it as we are."

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