CLINTON'S ROCKY START
HARVARD PROFESSORS, ADMINISTRATORS AND FELLOWS SAY IT'S HARD TO JUDGE A PRESIDENT'S TRUE EFFECTIVENESS ON AN ADMINISTRATION'S FIRST FEW MONTHS. YET MOST OF THEM HAVE SOME SUGGESTIONS OR RECOMMENDATIONS, HAVING WITNESSED AND EVALUATED...
Surrounded by books on the American presidency in his Littauer office, Associate Professor of Government Mark A. Peterson belittles the popular trend of evaluating presidents based on their first hundred days in the White House.
"Let me preface my remarks by saying I think these 100 days conversations are inane," Peterson says.
In fact, the general consensus among Harvard faculty, administrators and fellows seems to indicate that 100 days (actually 117) is too little time to predict the future success of a president--or of President Clinton.
"It is really too early to come to any definite conclusions," says Roger Porter, the former Bush administration domestic policy adviser who has returned to teach at the Business School and the Kennedy School of Government.
"The only time [these conversations] made sense was during Roosevelt's term," Peterson says.
Peterson, Porter and others trace the first 100-day presidential analysis back to the term of Franklin D. Roosevelt '04. In his first few months, Roosevelt enacted an enormous amount of legislation, including a much needed economic program that provided depression relief, loans and jobs through a variety of federal agencies.
"This 100-day business has been a tradition since Roosevelt, but it does not cast an administration or a president in concrete," Porter says.
But while many argue that the 100-day mark serves little purpose, few can hold back in passing judgment on the chief executive's early performance, especially since he made ambitious campaign pledges of sweeping changes. Launching into detailed critiques, they both make suggestions for improvement and give tenuous nods of approval.
Professor of Government Morris P. Fiorina is one of the many who use the first 100 days of other presidents as a barometer for Clinton.
"All his staff and he were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the Carter administration, which has pretty much been accepted to be a failure," Fiorina says.
"But I've been surprised how they've made the same mistakes and how they've admitted it as well," says Fiorina, who teaches an introductory American government course and a class titled "Elections and Public Opinion in the 1980s."
But Peterson, who teaches a course on the President and Congress and one titled "The American Presidency," says Clinton has already bettered the last Democrat who sat in the Oval Office.
"There are three broad skills of a President," Peterson says. "The first is the basic intellectual skills and a knowledge of policy making. Clinton has this and so did Carter."
"The second is an ability to engage in inside bargaining, negotiating and arm-twisting. [Lyndon Johnson] could do this, and Clinton is a lot closer in this way to Johnson than he is to Carter. The last skill is communication. Clinton can do this very well with large and small audiences, as Franklin Roosevelt could, and Reagan and Kennedy," he says.
Because Clinton embodies these qualities and has overcome a number of minor setbacks, "Clinton has even more of an element of success, as an individual, than even Roosevelt," Peterson says. "But this is a world where the parties are stronger than they were during the New Deal, there is no coherence in Congress, and Clinton has to deal with many more complex issues."
Lynn Martin, who was secretary of labor for former president George Bush and is now a fellow at the Institute of Politics, says it is hard to measure Clinton against Bush because "Bush was already inside Washington" when he began his term.
"Clinton and Bush are like apples and oranges," Martin says. "[Bush] was preceded by a president who was in the same party and he was able to continue."
While Martin says Bush started at a conservative pace, she says one of the rotten apples spoiling Clinton's early days is his insistence upon tackling so many issues at once.
David King, associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School, also says Clinton has lost focus.
"His biggest general mistake is that he surrounded himself with political neophytes in dealing with Congress. And because of that, he's lost focus," King says.
The attention that Clinton's staff has received, both because of its relative inexperience and the difficulties Clinton has had with appointments, may come back to haunt Clinton, Fiorina says.
"[Clinton's staff members] are young and very arrogant, yet very inexperienced," Fiorina says.
Charles T. Royer, director of the Institute of Politics and former mayor of Seattle, agrees that Clinton "has really had a rocky start" in making his selections for key posts.
"It's been a little slow across the government. I mean they're having a really hard time with the sub-cabinet positions. You can only take so many Zoe Bairds before they start to question the whole administration," Royer says.
Royer says "it is obvious now that Clinton seems to be a man who enjoys the fray. He loves politics. He doesn't see the government as the enemy. He sees it as a positive influence for change."
But Clinton's friendliness with the government, and parts of his liberal economic agenda, have some scared.
"It's beginning to look like the old line that 'no tax looks bad to a Democrat,'" Fiorina says.
"He is showing that he is no new-style Democrat but is turning out to be an old-style, activist Northern Democrat," Fiorina says. "If he pulls it off, great. But if the economy is struggling along and we get nothing new, then people will say 'Hey, we got fooled again.' And they will blow off the Democrats."
But Harvard economist Douglas W. Elmendorf, who teaches a course on American economic policy, says Clinton's economic plan won't tax Americans enough.
"He has tax increases, but not as many as I would like. He also doesn't have as many spending cut-backs as I would like," says Elmendorf.
Elmendorf also criticizes Clinton's spending plan. Although he praises Clinton's planned reductions in defense and bureaucratic spending, Elmendorf says "the element missing is a serious reduction in benefit programs for retirees."
"All of the growth in the government in the last several decades has been in benefit programs, and mostly benefits for retirees like Social Security and Medicare," he says.
"If you want to restrain government spending, you have to cut [retiree benefits]," he says. "[Such reductions are] politically impossible but economically necessary. But he should try."
So far, it does seem politically impossible for Clinton to get his economic plans passed, as witnessed by the recent Republican filibuster of his $16 billion stimulus bill.
Yet Clinton's problems extend far beyond the Republican contingent in Congress, says King from the Kennedy School.
"It's [Clinton's] fault. If he couldn't see that coming, he's got a problem. And there were people in the Democratic Party warning him that it would happen, but it fell on deaf ears," King says.
Fiorina agrees with the assessment that Clinton's problems are largely self-generated.
"He has played right into Republican hands," Fiorina says. "He could have been more cautious, and the country would have given him more credit for it. Especially if he had admitted that the bigger issues like health care will take longer."
Jane H. Corlette, Harvard's acting vice president for government, community and public affairs, says she hopes Clinton unites Republicans and Democrats soon. But she says so far it looks like Clinton's term may show as much inter-party divisiveness as Reagan's or Bush's.
"Clinton has become much more partisan than during the election. I think this country needs to get its game together," Corlette says.
Corlette says she worries about Clinton's pending health care policy, emphasizing the negative effects it might have on public health at Harvard.
"The things that we worry about in Clinton's health care reform are how medical education is going to be financed, if physicians' incomes are going to fall...how our medical students are going to pay back their substantial debts, and what kinds of controls the system puts on what kinds of doctors are produced," Corlette says.
"We have some problems with the sacrifices we are being called upon to make," Corlette says, noting that Clinton's stimulus plan that didn't pass included a large amount of money for the National Science Foundation--upon which Harvard is "quite dependent."
But Peterson, who teaches a junior government seminar titled "Health Care as a Policy-Making Problem" says that despite some initial problems, everyone will be better off if Clinton's health care plan passes.
"You can't just say 'Tomorrow I am going to solve the health care dilemma,'" Peterson says.
"But if it is done correctly then five or 10 years down the road we will be saving hundreds of billions--although in the short run it looks like more money," he says.
Responding to the widespread pessimism that Congress might not pass Clinton's plan, Peterson says the president has plenty of advantages working for him.
"Problems are bad already, they are penetrating into the middle class and people are scared," Peterson says. "Also, business has dropped its past rhetoric about government involvement. They are getting creamed just like everyone else."
But Peterson does acknowledge that Congress may in fact reject the plan. "Clinton is the first person to run on health care reform. But that doesn't mean it won't fail," he says.
Peterson says some of Clinton's actions in other areas during the first hundred days can be attributed to a "tremendous generational change."
"The issues like women in combat, gays in the military and abortion are at the forefront of this generational gap that George Bush was not a part of," Peterson says.
"[Clinton] could not come up with a legitimate reason, for instance, for not putting gays in the military," he says.
Porter from the Kennedy School says while Clinton "is very bright and very savvy, [and] will learn all along the way," many are still waiting for the president to reveal his long term goals.
"Clinton has not yet defined his presidency," Porter says. "He hasn't said what he wants other than change., It is not yet clear his administration knows how to formulate a program and implement it, whether it's the economy, health care or gays in the military."
Most refrain from making generalizations about Clinton's foreign policy performance, but they all agree that the Bosnia conflict "is a real mess and not something we can handle very easily," as Royer says.
While Corlette says Clinton is doing a fair job with "some glitches," a couple of professors pulled out their red pens to grade Clinton. While Royer gives the president "no less than a B," King allows the president only a B-minus.
As for advice to the nation's leader, the suggestions vary. But most suggested the term "focus" as freely as Clinton himself threw out the word "change" throughout his campaign.
Whether or not Clinton focuses on the recommendations from Mother Harvard, be will need to show much more progress if he wants his next 100 days to earn him glowing praise from Cambridge's academics.
"After all," says Florina, "Nothing succeeds like success."