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But Penn and Schoen's polls showed that consumer confidence exceeded the upbeat levels of 1985. The President's handling of the economy had a 57% approval rating. Concern about the economy had dropped off the voter radar screen. In October Penn made an "optimism presentation" at the regular Wednesday-night meeting. "I'm not suggesting we go out and say this is the best economy in history," Penn told the group. "I'm saying we have to create the possibility that things are better than some people believe." In a memo for that meeting, Penn wrote, "Failure to recognize the optimism in the electorate and to correctly revive it...could be the single biggest mistake we would make that would cost us the election." If Clinton was going to run a sunny re-election campaign a la Morning in America, Penn maintained, he had better set the table now. "The sense that the country is moving in the right direction is something that Americans have to be led to conclude," Penn said. "They won't conclude it on their own."
But the consultants had to fight a rearguard action by the White House liberals. Reich and Ickes began sending the President clips and polls that showed the economy was in the tank. After Penn gave an optimism presentation to a small group of officials, Stephanopoulos was skeptical. "This is fine," he said, "but we need a contingency plan in case the economy goes bad."
"That's what we have had," said Penn. "We've been executing it right through all the good news. What we need is a contingency plan for the economy's going well."
MAKING RHETORIC REALITY
Morris believed that the 1996 State of the Union address, which Clinton was to deliver Jan. 23, would be a make-or-break moment, an ideal showcase for a President in transition. Clinton's performance during the budget battle had boosted his standing, making voters give the new and improved Clinton a precious second look. The speech would be Clinton's de facto declaration of his candidacy.
In December, Penn began polling a laundry list of values-based policy proposals that would become the heart of the speech and the laboratory for the Morris values offensive of the spring. To prepare the list, Penn met with a dozen White House aides and Cabinet officials, soliciting their ideas about themes and policies to include in the speech. He made a master list of more than 100 policies that were tested in a poll of 1,200 samples. And in conjunction with the speechwriting team headed by hardworking communications director Don Baer, he created 20 paragraphs, each expressing a different vision of the Clinton presidency. Penn poll-tested these competing visions and met daily with the speechwriters to refine the paragraphs he was testing.
In January, Penn presented the poll results to 20 Clinton aides crowded into Baer's office. Morris listened via speakerphone from Connecticut. The top six issues on people's minds were crime and violence; balancing the budget fairly; protecting children from smoking ads, TV violence and drugs; strengthening the family; improving education; and protecting the environment. These would become Clinton's focus. Penn rated each position in terms of the percentage of voters from each group--Clinton, Swing I, Swing II, Dole--who said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who took those positions.