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Can this presidency be saved? 

The pundits are dubious. The White House is addled.

click to enlarge Bill Clinton's presidency was on shaky ground in 1993 image
  • Jeff Mitchell
  • TAKING A BEATING: Clinton's presidency is in trouble, bogged down by the White House travel office, haircuts, concessions on his economic program and Lani Guinier. but pundits aren't ruling out a recovery.

Things are so bad for President Clinton that even Washington columnists who ought to be his natural allies are beginning to sound like the Arkansas columnists and editorialists who have long portrayed him as a character-flawed hollow man.

But the Washington pundits don't call him "Slick Willie." Clinton probably would exult if they did. Nothing about his recent performance implies slickness.

What the nation is seeing is the worst of both worlds: Clinton's usual weaknesses of trying to please everybody, over-promising, retreating and indecision, but without any of the political finesse that once appeared to be his genius.

For once he appears to have troubles he can't readily talk his way out of. He's never failed at this level.

In its edition of Wednesday, June 9, The Washington Post provided Clinton with the Op Ed page from hell. Rush Limbaugh couldn't wait to read from it aloud on the air.

David Broder is perhaps the most highly regarded political journalist in the country, the Sinatra of the pundits. At least he is that in Washington. He once was something of a fan of Clinton, having discovered him at National Governors' Association conferences and deeming him to be perhaps the smartest and most impressive of a new breed of governors who seemed to transcend traditional ideology to emerge as consensus-building problem-solvers.

So it was significant when on the aforementioned op-ed page, Broder called Clinton's presidency a "calamity" and declared, "That this is happening to the man who will remain as president for the next 43 months is an international disaster."

So notable was the pessimistic tone of Broder's column that it lent itself to elaboration — to the fine Washington tradition of journalist interviewing journalist.

"I deliberately tried in that piece not to make predictions about the future, but to limit myself to a current assessment...," Broder said. "I'm not prepared to say whether he's recoverable. But what is worrisome is that the problems he's having right now are occurring on probably the easiest of issues for him. The economic program is less difficult than the trade and health care issues that await him."

Broder said he couldn't precisely identify Clinton's problem, though he had thought long about it. "None of this was predictable — unless it was predictable to someone a lot smarter than I am," he said.

He said that time and again he'd watched Clinton mediate disputes at governors' conferences and assume control of position papers to recommend the right language to build consensus.

He thought Clinton might use those skills to broaden the 43 percent vote that won him the presidency, maybe build a bipartisan national government. But instead, he said, Clinton has let his support erode while he pursues an agenda entirely too ambitious for a minority president.

On that same op-ed page, another left-leaning columnist, Robert Samuelson, wrote, "Clinton lies. I could put it more delicately, but that would miss the point."

Such a blunt, non-euphemistic assessment hadn't been delivered since John Robert Starr appeared in late October and startled Ted Koppel.

Worst of all, the White House appears addled by it all, without political equilibrium. The question is whether the administration gets it.

A consultant to the White House lamented last week that all the press attention is on the White House travel and a haircut instead of low interest rates, home mortgage refinancing and passage of the family medical leave and motor voter bills. But the travel office and haircuts are sidebars to the real problems of presidential strength and credibility. And it's a sign of Clinton's failings thus far that as successes he cites two bills that were passed when George Bush was president, but vetoed, and a rash of mortgage refinancings that actually started in the last year of the Bush presidency, when, according to Clinton, the nation had a failed economic policy.

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