A High Risk Presidency

It was inevitable that the eerie, wind-swept immolation in Waco last week would lead to a media apocalypse: Where was Clinton? Was he trying to duck responsibility? Why didn't they act sooner? Why didn't they wait? (And wasn't Janet Reno wonderful, standing up like that?) Was this a significant, symbolic moment in the Clinton presidency? A turningpoint, perhaps? Was this his Bay of Pigs? To which the public replied, almost immediately: Nahh. This was a mass suicide waiting to happen. What are you media guys all het up about?

Fair enough. We get het at the drop of a hat. The most persistent theme of Bill Clinton's profoundly inconclusive 100 days in office has been the desperate search for conclusions, the tendency to see triumphs and cataclysms in the most routine ceremonies of governance. The desperation is understandable: Clinton is tough to read, at once accessible-he hugs, he weeps, he feels our pain-and yet mysterious. Is all that gushy, charming, lip-biting a pose? What does he really care about? And what's his marriage all about? (Without doubt the question most often asked by civilians-and not an idle one, given the nature of the partnership.) There may be delicious revelations down the road. For now, though, nuances must suffice-and a modest observation: this presidency is different from much of what's gone on for the past 25 years, and therefore tougher to gauge, because the Clintons are unapologetic believers in government activism.

Activism isn't easy. It is, in fact, almost always politically dangerous. Something usually goes wrong; there are unintended consequences. There is scant margin of error--every new public sector "product" must succeed ... or be damned as a waste of the taxpayers' money. Clinton can quote Franklin Roosevelt all he wants about the need to experiment, but the freedom to mess around is granted to presidents only under extraordinary circumstances. Roosevelt faced the nation's worst economic crisis. Clinton's moment is more amorphous, but that hasn't dented his ambitions. He wants to extend government into highly speculative areas-universal health care, national service, defense conversion and high tech for starters. The odds against success in all, or even most, are prohibitive. This is a high-risk presidency.

The easiest way to succeed as an activist-and the path Clinton has pursued so far-is to take the inside route, to work the system. And so he has lashed himself to the Democrats' congressional leadership, drawing the sclerotic old bulls into consultation about his various packages, allowing them to polish down the sharp edges. There are two problems with this strategy. The first is that he sacrifices the rebellious, upstart heart of his candidacy-concedes it to Ross Perot, in fact-for an inevitably marginal result: his budget plan, for example, was a step in the right direction, but insufficiently bold (and growing lamer by the minute, as the spending cuts are vaporized by the special interests). The second problem is there's no guarantee of success, even with the bulls on board: Clinton's flabby, ill-conceived stimulus package made all sorts of concessions, staffers say, to the needs of the appropriations committees and the administration's own bureaucrats. It was guided in the Senate by the legendary pork-jockey, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. And it was slam-dunked by the Republicans. Clinton came off an insider, a liberal and a loser, a neat trick.

A more adventurous way to be an activist is to challenge the system. To do this, great clarity of purpose is needed. Reagan had it (though he rarely tried anything very ambitious or painful); Clinton doesn't seem to. He has no battle cry. At his press conference last week, the president-passionately-stated his credo: "One thing I think that everyone's figured out about me ... is, I want to get something done ... I want to do things." Great. Even if he were a bit more precise, Clinton would need an administration that was disciplined, purposeful and authoritative-but a careful review of his appointments reveals only one high-ranking official who combines those three qualities: his wife. Secretary of State Warren Christopher is disciplined, but not very purposeful. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin is purposeful but not disciplined. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen seems authoritative, but to what end? And how solid did Janet Reno seem as she took her painful hit last week? By contrast, and perhaps ironically, the Bush administration-the least activist since Coolidge's-was filled with solid sorts: Baker, Cheney, Scowcroft, perhaps even Darman were all triple threats--disciplined, authoritative and purposeful. Clinton's clumsy transition and his disastrous, politically correct appointments process has yielded a dullish, overmatched cast of characters.

Absent a well-defined purpose, the Clinton administration has been forced to settle for a well-defined jargon. The one thing everyone seems to have in common is a belief in "reinventing government" and "personal responsibility," though few appear to understand the philosophy beneath the rhetoric. Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros has trouble, for example, distinguishing between "reinventing" government and reimposing it: his standard urban-policy speech is a Great Society artifact, down to the-utterly irresponsible-warning that unless something is done about America's cities the cities "will seek vengeance." Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala touts "personal responsibility" without ever going so far as to acknowledge the importance of intact, two-parent families. Like the president, most Clinton appointees want to "do things" and they seem to understand that the old, liberal ways have been discredited, but only a few have thought about what comes next.

Such unfocused activism can quickly lead to paralysis. This administration's inner life is defined by late nights, endless meetings and metastasizing task forces. The situation in Bosnia occasioned a seven-hour session several weeks ago. As a rule, the only reasonable question to ask after a seven-hour meeting about anything is, was there a hostage situation? "You know what these late nights and long meetings really mean?" says a Democrat who served in another White House. "They're scared to death."

There certainly seems to be a lack of direction. It starts just below the First Family on the administrative flow chart. There are few colorful characters, big thinkers, enforcers or grizzled strategists in top management at the White House. The function of the three leading policy aides-national-security adviser Tony Lake, national-economic adviser Bob Rubin and domestic-policy adviser Carol Rasco--appears to be collating opinions rather than having any of their own. Each is disciplined and intelligent, but seemingly without a strong personal agenda or, for that matter, ego (Lake, in particular, maintains the lowest profile of any national-security adviser since Reagan's immortal Judge Clark). Thomas (Mack) McLarty, their immediate boss, has never uttered a word in public that wasn't entirely innocuous. There is a blandness, a lack of personal intensity in positions of great power that seems, well, weird. It is certainly out of sync with the furious ambition emanating from the Oval Office. Then again, maybe the blandness is what happens when Clinton's legendary need to please, minus the charm, is projected onto a staff.

And what about the chief? We still don't know very much about him. We know he's smart, and personable, and relentlessly empathetic. We knew most of that 100 days ago. We know that he can be an effective salesman, but we're not sure yet what he'll do with that skill. Clinton lacks sharp edges, he tends to envelop people and ideas rather than confront them, and so he remains slightly out of focus-especially when he's considered in the abstract, when he's not right out there, accessible, in front of us.

The real fear is of a softness at the core of the man. He's not yet had to face a crisis-except in the campaign, where he responded by keeping his cool and working harder-and so it's impossible to know if he can be trusted in a pinch. Waco was close to the real thing, a matter of life and death on his watch ... and he was nowhere near the action. When asked at his press conference if-knowing what he now knew-he might have chosen to be more involved in the planning of the operation, he said no. It was an odd response for an activist. The ability to make split-second, intuitive decisions in a situation where lives are at stake is always a threshold test for a president, but it seems particularly important now. How Bill Clinton fares when that moment comes will determine the leeway he is given on lesser issues-like health care, taxing and spending. It will determine the fate of his presidency.