Battle Scars

The White House phones were tied up with angry callers. The pundits were sullen, the talk-show hosts in full cry. As the president took his morning jog down Pennsylvania Avenue, angry commuters yelled at him for tying up traffic. As for those midnight trips to Dunkin' Donuts, forget it. The White House, Bill Clinton complained to an old friend less than a week after he arrived there, is "the crown jewel in the American prison system."

But Clinton is nothing if not an optimist. At the end of last week, there he was, in his shirt sleeves, working into the night on the wording of a compromise that would get him out of a jam with the nation's military and senior members of his own party. For the second week in a row, Clinton's most notable accomplishment was his ability to get out of a scrape of his own making. First it was Zoe Baird, his flawed nominee for attorney general, who was cut loose with such alacrity that she'll be lucky to survive in a trivia quiz. Then it was the controversy over lifting the ban against gays in the military, which struck many as an odd priority for a president who had promised to "focus like a laser beam" on the economy.

The helter-skelter look of Clinton's opening weeks took a toll. NEWSWEEK'S new poll shows that half the public approves of the way he is handling his job, but 32 percent disapproves, a negative rating far higher than any recent president has received this early in his administration. Part of the problem is that Clinton did not lay out a clear economic strategy during the campaign. For better or worse, Ronald Reagan told voters where he wanted to take the country. Clinton offered up a host of fuzzy campaign promises, like a middle-class tax cut, that he must now back away from. So Clinton has become a punching bag for talk radio and every interest group that can type a mailing list.

Voters will have to wait until Clinton addresses Congress on Feb. 17 to learn his real game plan for the economy. Still, his opening days in office gave a clear indication of his basic style of governing:

Clinton always leaves himself an escape hatch. He promised not to raise taxes on the middle class to pay for new program&-but that doesn't rule out raising them to pay for old programs (like the ones that produced the federal deficit). He pledged to end discharges from the military based on sexual orientation -but he agreed to an interim policy that allows military commanders to transfer gay people to standby reserve duty without pay and benefits. He kept his pledge-there won't be any discharges-but gays will still be punished. Clinton is much craftier than George Bush in avoiding the kind of "Read My Lips" vow that allows no maneuvering room. He can rewrite his promises to adjust to reality. That opens him to "Slick Willie" catcalls. It also leaves him the option to do the right thing.

Even when Clinton's political radar is down, he recovers well. By the end of last week, both the military and mainstream gay activists thought they had won concessions. It is a measure of Clinton's skill at finding the fault line between two extremes that he could neutralize both sides, at least for the moment. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was greeted with applause from staffers when he returned to his office after Clinton announced he would postpone signing an executive order for at least six months. Gay groups see Clinton's attempt to lift the ban against gays in the military as an important first step, signaling the eventual end to an odious form of discrimination. Recalling Abraham Lincoln's conditional promise to free the slaves, Democratic consultant Robert Shrum dubbed Clinton's approach "the Emancipation Proclamation strategy."

Most politicians keep a finger in the wind, but Clinton is a meteorologist. He sometimes seems to have no center because he is the sum of the pressures upon him. In Arkansas he once dispatched a state trooper to retrieve a bill he had vetoed from under a door with a coat hanger after an argument from the other side changed his mind. Clinton was propelled into office in part by the new talk-show culture. Now he is the victim of an electronic town hall that can whip up a crisis in 24 hours. At the White House, irate callers tied up the switchboard for two weeks running, first on Zoe Baird, then to register their opposition at a rate of 100 to 1 on lifting the ban against gays. Clinton listened to the reaction to Baird, which was a spontaneous outpouring of populist rage. But the outcry against gays appeared orchestrated, and Clinton concluded that his greater risk would have been breaking a campaign commitment he first made more than a year ago.

Clinton has been unequivocal about one thing since taking office: his reliance on his wife. He stuck Hillary with one of the toughest jobs in the administration, heading a task force to draft a health-care-reform proposal in 100 days. Hillary's appointment has strong support among the public, with 62 percent in the NEWSWEEK Poll predicting she will do a good job with her new assignment. But the Clintons are gearing up for the worst. At a private dinner party with friends in Washington, Hillary was toasted with a joke gift: a witch's hat in anticipation of all that she would be accused of as the wicked witch of the West Wing.

Clinton's stumbles have made him an easy target for derision inside the Beltway. A group of conservatives meeting to discuss their future half-jokingly considered renaming a panel discussion "The Clinton Administration: What Went Wrong?" It is silly to make sweeping judgments this early. But unless Clinton refocuses the debate, the Beltway taunts will continue to seep out to the countryside-and the talk-show eruptions will come booming back.

Do you approve of the way Bill Clinton is handling his job as president?

51% Approve 32% Disapprove

For this NEWSWEEK Poll, The Gallup Organization interviewed a national sample of 744 adults Jan 28-29. Margin of error +/- 4 percentage points. "Don't know" and other responses not shown. The NEWSWEEK Poll copyright 1993 by NEWSWEEK, Inc.