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Some worthwhile advice for the new president.

AS BILL CLINTON assumes office, he should be humbled by a simple fact--we have five living ex-presidents (Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush). Only Reagan left the office after two full terms to the general applause of the nation. In fact, since World War 11, only two presidents (Dwight Eisenhower and Reagan) were elected to and completed two full terms. In this lies an important cautionary tale. Simply put, most contemporary occupants of the White House have been mastered by the office, rather than been its masters.

Pres. Clinton no doubt will try to learn from the misfortunes of his predecessors. The challenge, as it is for any student of history, will be to find what lessons of the past can apply to the future. Here are a few suggestions:

Administer the strong economic medicine early, while the patient still has your trust. Carter never took this advice, overstimulating the economy early in his presidency, thereby inducing inflation later, then having to step on the economic brakes. The result was defeat. Clinton should deal with the deficit issue and introduce measures to cap entitlement spending in his first 100 days. By getting an early handle on the deficit dilemma, he may have some fiscal maneuverability in the event the economy turns downward as he heads for re-election.

Set your priorities so they are clear and understood by the general public. Reagan had only three ideas--cut taxes, strengthen the military, and reduce domestic spending. He focused upon them relentlessly in his first term and was at least successful in achieving the first two. Carter had a laundry list of ideas, and no one could discern which was more important than the other. Bush waited until late in his term to articulate a domestic agenda; by then, he had lost his credibility. If economic growth is Clinton's objective, all other matters should be made secondary to that aim.

Learn to say no and mean no. A president who talks tough and then caves in will spend an enormous amount of time trying to regain his credibility. Bush's reneging on his "no new taxes" promise proved to be a fatal error. No only did this make little economic sense during a weak economy, but it cut at the core of his believability and only whet the appetite of his opponents. Compromise is the glue of politics. Yet, when one compromises on core beliefs, the glue has no adhesion for other matters. After Bush signed the 1990 budget agreement, Congress became more confrontational, rather than less, sensing his weakness.

Remember, this is your administration--not the Vice President's or the Cabinet members'. They all work for you. Carter gave his Cabinet members broad discretion in picking their assistants, and many were closer politically to Vice Pres. Walter Mondale than to the President. Consequently, the Carter Administration was headed by a southern moderate, but staffed with northern liberals. The result was ideological confusion and sometimes programmatic chaos. Carter had to involve himself in the details of policy if he wanted to set direction. No president can run the government that way. Reagan, on the other hand, had subjected both his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials to an ideological litmus test. In fact, all sub-Cabinet appointments had to be cleared by the White House. The result was greater cohesion and less need for the President to intervene on minor policy matters.

Capture the rhetorical dimension of leadership. Some presidents--Ford, Carter, and Bush--governed as if words did not matter. Their speeches were prosaic and unmemorable. Ford put people to sleep; Carter was lugubrious and preachy; and, without a script, Bush often made no sense. The great leaders of our century--Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles deGaulle--understood that the ability to govern is related to the ability to persuade through language and a sense of the moment. Reagan may not have been in the same league, but he understood the lesson and spoke with conviction and grace. Clinton must remember that neither campaign stump speeches nor details of policy papers are what the public expects to hear from a president. In his brief time in the Oval Office, John Kennedy brought an appreciation for both the elegance and simplicity of language. He moved people and affected history.

Co-opt the center. If Clinton wants to throw conservatives off their stride, he should adopt some of the non-bureaucratic proposals of the Jack Kemp Republicans. Housing vouchers, urban free-enterprise zones, and school choice may upset the teachers' and the municipal workers' unions, but so what? The political gains he will accrue from stealing the most imaginative parts of the conservative agenda will far outweigh their bleating.

Military power should not be an end in itself, but a means to achieve a political end. This is the Weinberger Doctrine and should not be discarded. Former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger recommended, "If we do decide to commit force to combat ourselves, we should have clearly defined political and military objectives. And we should know precisely how our forces can accomplish those objectives." This was a lesson Lyndon Johnson never absorbed in Vietnam, but one that George Bush, to his everlasting credit, applied to the Gulf War. Democratic presidents often have fallen victim to their own messianic language in foreign policy and became involved in wars the outcome of which they could not control. Clinton should follow a more conservative calculus in foreign policy, making sure his ends do not outrun his means.

Ultimately, the key to success is a sense of history. The great leaders do stumble over the furniture, but they eventually get across the room. The mediocre ones always are rearranging the furniture so they don't stumble over it, but never go anywhere.
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Title Annotation:Pres Bill Clinton
Author:Bresler, Robert J.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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