For students of politics, the level of play can hardly get more exciting or more complex than it is in Washington nowadays. I suppose we have Congress to thank for this one.
The Congress, it seems, has successfully checked President Clinton's every move and will continue to do so until the Republicans' "Contract with America" has run its gamut, or until Clinton has been run out of office. Although the warning alarms in the White House began shrieking the day after the November election, the response so far has been slow and piecemeal. As the leader of our government, President Clinton should take heed to the crisis at hand and realize that he is treading on thin ice.
Conservatives in Washington today are preoccupied with their recent ascent to power, and are now happily meeting, planning and networking to parley that power toward a common agenda in the next two years and to a presidency beyond that. The question now is how long can the Democrats, namely Clinton, withstand the Republican onslaught before we begin to see cracks in his resolve, as well as his own values? Can he stand firm?
Some people might feel that President Clinton has already answered these questions by oscillating back and forth between different ideologies. Though Clinton's position is hardly enviable, there is hope; Harry S. Truman has been there before.
In 1946, when the Republicans won a substantial majority in both the House and the Senate, President Truman found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. Many, including the Democrats themselves, wrote him off as an "also-ran" for the upcoming presidential election of 1948.
At a time when everyone was feeling sorry for his position, Truman's resurgent spirit was preparing for a revolution. Utilizing his wit and his statesmanship, he contrived to make the bellicose Congress pass several major bills. As a matter of fact, Truman embarked on an impressive agenda during this period, producing such landmark policy achievements as the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
Of course, one cannot expect Bill Clinton in the 1990s to accomplish as much. Nevertheless, he can still benefit from Truman's common-sense approach to the problems at hard.
First, Clinton should begin by changing his attitude toward the role of the President in the dynamic American government. He will have to realize that he can no longer run the executive branch with the "We shall overcome" attitude of the Great Society era. We are living at the threshold of a new century that demands real and practical answers, not hypothetical, dream-like ones. Clinton should be at the forefront, taking the initiative, advocating pragmatic solutions such as "enablement," not "entitlement," in social programs, among others. Here, Franklin Delano Roosevelt '04 could serve as his guiding principle when he said, "Permanent, lifelong assistance does not help the individual. It only hurts him."
Please do not misunderstand. I am not suggesting that Clinton should move to the right; that would be a grave mistake. President Truman made the same mistake when he ordered the creation of the loyalty program under which all Federal employees were subject to investigation. Trying to appease the growing right-wing clamor over Communists in government, he only made matters worse.
By studying history, Mr. Clinton can positively use some of the experiences of his professed political idols. In the words of Henry A. Kissinger '50, a great leader also possesses "a tragic sense of history." Although President Clinton seems to lack this quality, he has proven to be an adept learner.
Clinton should pay more attention to the words of the founders of our government, namely Alexander Hamilton. "Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government," Hamilton wrote in The Federalist No. 70. "A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government."
History attests to this truth. All great presidents were strong executives.
Second, as the leader of the government, the President should create an atmosphere of cooperation and bipartisanship among the various contenders. He should also seek the help, the well-intentioned advice and the support of whomever is willing to give it. But he should take care not to be unduly influenced by one side of the political spectrum to the dismay of the other, or worse yet, to the detriment of the American people.
The American people have historically supported presidents who make their own decisions. Despite Clinton's obvious political differences with opposition leaders like Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, Clinton must ensure that they respect his Constitutional powers as the President. Thus under no circumstances should he forfeit his powers to initiate policy, neither should he delegate them. The final policy decisions must always come from the executive branch.
Third, the President should be proactive, not reactive to Congress' whims. The Congress, by nature, is only effective when its is flexible. To grant it too much power is to do it a disservice.