The Energizer Bunny President

President Clinton has been compared to a lot of different people. His admirers liken his appeal to John F. Kennedy '40. His opponents see in his background and his performance Jimmy Carter. Pretentious Northerners sometimes view him as a smarter version of the Southern "Bubba." And of course, music-lovers think he looks like a poor man's Elvis. On evaluating his first year in office, I have concluded that he is none of these. In fact, Clinton is the real-life incarnation of the Energizer Bunny.

Perhaps the only person in history with more lives than his cat, Clinton has been declared dead and buried so many times that it is useless to keep counting. But he just keeps going and going and going.

As the inevitable year-end appraisals of Clinton's first year hit the newsstands and airwaves this month, the President is unlikely to get many glowing reviews. His first few months were probably the rockiest of any modern administration. Clinton's handling of gays in the military, Nannygate, and the Lani Guinier fiasco left much to be desired. But the same news media that made an issue of Christophe's visit to Air Force One has now conspired to produce an unbalanced perspective on his first year. Conservatives will complain that he's too liberal. Left wingers will say he hasn't been liberal enough. Both will say he compromised the values that got him elected.

What each of these groups will fail to recognize is that Clinton has amassed perhaps the most extensive list of first-year accomplishments of any chief executive since the New Deal--accomplishments which will substantively improve the lives of all Americans.

Republicans have crowed all year that Clinton's is doomed to become a failed presidency. A few of the more shameless Senate leaders have taken this as an article of faith; Clinton was still moving furniture into the White House when Bob Dole and Phil Gramm started to spend their free time in New Hampshire.


In less than one full year, though, Clinton has passed a serious five-year deficit reduction package, a family and medical leave bill, the motor-voter bill, the Brady bill, a comprehensive crime prevention package, and a national service initiative. Furthermore, he overturned the gag rule at abortion clinics, enacted the most stringent ethics requirements ever on executive branch officials, introduced a plan for reinventing government which has received broad support, and successfully appointed a widely respected and able jurist to the Supreme Court.

And of course, he has unveiled his vision of national health care reform and taken the first steps toward reforming welfare. If this is failure, what was George Bush's presidency?

Clinton has done in his first year what he promised the American people he would do: fundamentally change the direction of this country. And the American people are beginning to realize he is doing big things: changing the way the government budgets its money, breaking down trade barriers, revolutionizing health care finance and delivery.

While it is true that many of Clinton's successes have come about by compromise, few Americans would with for a return to the stubborn gridlock that was the norm in Washington before this year. And after all, compromise is an essential aspect of politics; Clinton has demonstrated that he has mastered this concept.

In the area of foreign policy, Clinton has concededly not been as successful. He has seemed to waver on what, if anything, to do in Bosnia and Croatia. The Somalia mission has been at times unfocused. And the President has seemed unsure of what to do in Haiti. In general, Clinton's foreign policy is undefined and seems to lack a strong sense of direction.

However, on the most important foreign policy issues--those most relevant to our vital interests--Clinton has done quite well. He has been steadfast in his support of Boris Yeltsin and was able to convince an intransigent Congress to lend monetary aid to Russia. In trans-Pacific trade relations, Clinton has made progress in beginning a dialogue with Japan and China. Indeed, he dazzled foreign leaders with his mastery of trade issues earlier this year in Tokyo and more recently in Seattle.

Finally, Clinton acted with great dignity during the historic Middle East peace ceremony in September. He gave credit to his predecessors, to former Secretary of State James Baker and to the Israeli and PLO negotiators and in general maintained a low profile. Sometimes, a president enhances his stature by deflecting credit to others.

Moreover, he has dispelled the fears that his foreign policy inexperience would lead to rash decisions. The knee-jerk reaction in Bosnia would have been intervention. In Somalia, it would have been a hasty withdrawal. In China, it would have meant revocation of most-favored-nation trade status. On the contrary, Clinton's decisions have been the measured responses of a seasoned statesman.

It is, of course, too early to say whether the Clinton presidency will be successful or not. After all, it has only been a year. Besides, ultimately, the voters will be the judges. But Clinton's first year has undeniably been remarkably productive. The coming year, too, looks promising. With health care looming on the horizon, Clinton will have his opportunity to leave his mark on history. And the First Lady has signalled her intention to lead the effort to reform welfare--a clear sign that this administration will take that effort seriously.

Above all, Clinton has reinvigorated the presidency. Americans finally have a president actively engaged in solving the real problems of real people. Clinton has often noted that the American people desperately want their government to work, but have been betrayed by it for too long. His activism has begun to renew the hope that government can, once again, begin to work for them.

For progressive, forward-looking Americans, happy days are indeed on the way. The economy is picking up steam as we enter the holiday season; last month, the unemployment rate took its largest single-month dip in over a decade. Inflation has, nevertheless, remained low. We have a president hard at work attacking the problems in our society on all fronts. And there is a palpable sense, however halting, that America is moving forward again.

So, the conservative naysayers can complain that their ivory-tower minimalist state principles are being violated. The left wingers can carp about "don't ask, don't tell," NAFTA, and too many spending cuts. But if these critics can be allowed to cloud the substantive achievements of his first year, I can say, at the risk of sounding like a White House press office representative, that President Clinton is to be commended on a remarkable first year.

Has it been perfect? No. Has Clinton made mistakes? Certainly. Does he still have problems to deal with? Yes. But he constantly looks ahead, mindful of his limitations but always moving forward. This is indeed the formula for American renewal. And we are lucky to have Bill Clinton leading the way.

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