Oregonian | 07/26/1998
CLINTON PERFECTS DO-IT-YOURSELF GOVERNANCE
the president pushes his agenda with directives and vetoes
It's becoming a
pattern: When Congress doesn't do what President Clinton
wants -- and this year, that is most of the time -- he does
as much of it himself as he can.
By issuing executive
orders and directives, invoking his right to veto and
staging nearly an event a day, the president is trying to
carry his agenda forward, even when Republican lawmakers
It's a typical
tactic of presidents who face an opposition party in
Congress. But as Clinton strives to leave his mark on the
office, it's an art he has had to perfect.
Take last week as
an example. Congress ignores his education plan to pay for
school construction and new teachers? Fine. Clinton vetoes
the Republicans' education version. Congress has not passed
his juvenile-justice bill? OK, the president awards a series
of small grants to help churches fight gangs in 16 cities.
Acting alone, by executive
order or some other means, "has clearly become a
central component of Clinton's leadership strategy,"
says Terry Moe, a political science professor at Stanford
Many of Clinton's
independent actions don't have nearly the impact of his
directive last winter that extended patients' rights to
almost one-third of Americans. Or the effect of his
controversial May executive order to prohibit the
federal government from discriminating based on sexual
collectively, they "add up to an agenda," says
Moe, who is co-authoring a book about the power of
unilateral measures by presidents.
Part of this
approach to governing is simply the Clintonian way. But a
big motivator is the Republican-controlled Congress. In this
midterm election year, when Republicans and Democrats are
looking for ways to distinguish themselves from each other,
Clinton has lost on tobacco, education and child care, to
name just a few of the items on his long to-do list.
"Any time you
see the hourglass draining with respect to bipartisan
cooperation on legislation in Congress, then it's time to
start looking at other ways of skinning a cat," says
Mike McCurry, White House spokesman.
Of course, the
president often is restricted in what he can do to get
around Congress, which controls the purse strings for his
A good example is
education. One presidential response to that last week was
to call for a summit in the fall about school safety --
hardly a substitute for bricks, mortar and more personnel in
The White House the
spirit of cooperation to move lawmakers on the patients'
bill of rights, which would reform managed care. There is
room for maneuvering on the president's most contentious
criteria -- the right of people to sue health-maintenance
organizations when the HMOs make mistakes, McCurry says.
is not the only president to govern by executive fiat.
Harry Truman desegregated the military through executive order.
Lyndon B. Johnson introduced affirmative action the same
way. And when it comes to rejecting legislation from
Congress, Gerald Ford freely used his veto pen, says Stephen
Hess of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
But it's hard to
find any president who matches Clinton's modus operandi of
event-a-day governing. Last week it was a school summit
announcement on Monday, nursing-home crackdown on Tuesday,
grants to fight youth crime on Wednesday and relief for
parched farmers on Thursday.
say it's precisely this all-over-the-map approach that
contributes to Clinton's losses.
would be focus, focus, focus," says George Edwards,
director of the center for presidential studies at Texas
A&M in College Station. "Any piece of legislation
takes a long time to incubate. You have to keep doing it and
not do anything else."
But the White House
doesn't see it that way. "Why do you think Bill
Clinton's got these favorable poll numbers?" McCurry
says. Relief for farmers is front-page news in the parched
upper plains. Americans see a president doing his job,
McCurry says, despite his legal and political challenges in