Clinton As Roosevelt

To understand Bill Clinton, you need to recognize that he aspires to be the Franklin Roosevelt of the late 20th century. He wants to be a pivotal president: someone who changed history, someone who used government to better the lot of millions of Americans and someone who created a new political alignment by winning voters' loyalty with new programs. It is an understandable, but misconceived, ambition. It misreads Roosevelt's place in history and the country's present needs.

This is not the 1930s. We don't face an acute national crisis, but instead a chronic disillusionment. To some extent, it is a reaction to the world Roosevelt begat. We have come to view government as an open-ended agency of problem-solving. When problems persist that government is supposed to solve, people blame government for being inept. Americans do not want less government, but they aren't willing to pay for the government they've got because they think it is wasteful and ineffective.

Our overriding need today is to rebuild confidence in government-and in ourselves-by being more rigorous in what we demand of it. Government needs to retreat from jobs that it cannot do or aren't worth doing, while focusing on things that it might do and must do. Clinton disdains this difficult job of redefinition. Instead, he mimics the Roosevelt model by proposing new programs ranging from "national service" to high-speed railroads. He's dissipating government's energies by expanding its responsibilities.

At every turn, Clinton apes Roosevelt. Let's start with the focus on the "first 100 days." This was Clinton's idea, not the press's. Roosevelt had his 100 days, and Clinton wanted to cast himself in the same mold. Naturally, when the 100 days were up, the reviews weren't favorable, because few presidents do much in their first three months. Roosevelt was the exception, because the circumstances were totally different. In March 1933, virtually every bank in the country was closed. Unemployment was roughly 25 percent. Roosevelt had to act.

Like Roosevelt, Clinton sees himself as a pioneer in the political use of the mass media. Roosevelt was the first president to use radio as a deliberate instrument of politics and governance. His initial "fireside" chat-on the banking crisis-came eight days after his Inaugural. Similarly, Clinton has been an innovator. He does "Donahue," radio talk shows and "town hall meetings." The point for Clinton, as it was for Roosevelt, is to generate a groundswell of public support that will make opposition to presidential programs politically unpalatable. The president goes above Congress, and Congress complies.

In an interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw, Clinton put it this way: "The American presidents who have prevailed over the long run ... did it because the people were with them, and the other people who worked with them knew it." With popular support, the president then enacts a program that solidifies his political base. Roosevelt had jobs programs, farm subsidies and social security. Clinton imagines building his coalition by assuaging middle-class anxieties. Universal health insurance and college loans would relieve worries of being bankrupted by runaway health costs or soaring tuition.

As a theory of presidential success, this is seductive. It is, however, a simplistic explanation of Roosevelt's reputation. The Great Depression undermined Americans' faith in their political system. Communism on the left and fascism on the right flourished as never before. Roosevelt's triumph was that he renewed Americans' confidence in their political system. He showed that government would not passively tolerate mass suffering. The Civilian Conservation Corps provided jobs for nearly 3 million; the Works Progress Administration built 1,634 new schools. Millions of home mortgages were refinanced.

And yet, the New Deal did not end the Depression. In 1939, the unemployment rate was 17 percent. An unanswerable question is what Roosevelt's reputation would have been without World War II. In the late 1930s, the country remained bitterly divided because the Depression lingered and Roosevelt's programs were increasingly controversial. But Roosevelt excelled as a wartime leader. Victory and the accompanying prosperity muted memories of the 1930s and made him a national hero. The full economic and political consequences of his domestic programs-social security is the best example--did not emerge until years after his death.

In the 1930s, government needed to cushion the shortcomings of the private economy. In the 1990s, government needs to correct its own shortcomings. These, in turn, are rooted in unrealistic popular expectations. Americans want lower taxes, higher spending (not in general but on specific programs) and no deficits. Americans do not trust their leaders, because their leaders have not been honest with them. But their leaders fear that honesty-telling us that government cannot do everything, and certainly cannot do it for nothing-invites political suicide. Breaking this cycle of cynicism might earn Clinton presidential greatness.

Unfortunately, he is reinforcing the cycle. Almost every problem demands a governmental solution. Meanwhile, his avid courting of public opinion inspires routine dishonesties. He promises more than he can deliver or denies inconsistencies in his promises. In his campaign, he promised a middle-class tax cut, but his budget plan made assumptions that were either dishonest or incompetent. Now, he claims to be dramatically cutting federal spending-"over 200 specific budget cuts," as he boasted last week-when, in fact, his budget did not eliminate one major domestic program. Will he bring the same attitude to health-care reform?

The irony is that Clinton shares many of Roosevelt's political strengths. He has a wonderful command of language and rhetoric. He has a sharp intelligence and a detailed understanding of government. He has a natural ability to relate to people. He radiates an inner confidence-Reagan was like this, too-that people can sense and find reassuring. But by themselves, these political virtues will not suffice if Clinton lacks sound judgment and mental discipline. To be a Roosevelt, Clinton needs to break new ground. So far, he's merely replowing the old.