In just a matter of days, President Clinton has found himself defeated by his own party, questioned by his own Justice Department, maligned by his former business partner and challenged by a defiant Saddam Hussein.
To top it off, Paula Jones, who has accused him of sexual harassment before he became president, was featured prominently in the news when she gave a deposition in the case to lawyers in Little Rock, Ark., on Wednesday.
“We’re just in a little down cycle,” quipped one White House aide of a period that has caused pundits to use a phrase every president hates to see alongside his name: lame duck.
That characterization might well be premature, but the convergence of events involving Clinton’s embarrassing defeat of a cherished trade bill, the fund-raising scandal, the Whitewater affair and the complex Iraqi crisis provided a snapshot of the persisent troubles of his second term.
And yet, the political body blows to Clinton never seem to take him down. While scandal, political rejection by his own party and foreign-policy dilemmas pound him, the economy continues to roll along and create a sense of prosperity. His popularity was at its highest, around 60 percent, before the week’s events.
“While the appearances haven’t been as good as they might, I never count President Clinton out,” said Rep. Thomas Ewing, R-Ill., a House deputy whip. “He is quite a person to make a comeback. I am not sure the American people are focusing on any of these problem areas.”
Republican pollster and consultant Bill McInturff concurred. “People should read the U.S. Constitution. A president can veto a bill that requires a two-thirds vote to override. It means there is no such thing as a president who is a lame duck and is not a player in the process. It means the president has an equal vote.”
After Monday’s defeat of a bill to grant him power to negotiate “fast-track” trade deals Congress couldn’t amend, Clinton, along with Vice President Al Gore, answered questions from Justice Department investigators Tuesday about whether he violated the law in the fund-raising scandal.
Jones’ face was all over television newscasts in a gnawing reminder of a case that many fear could demean the presidency. She has filed suit alleging that Clinton exposed himself to her in a Little Rock hotel room.
The president’s former Whitewater business partner, James McDougal, alleged this week that Clinton had received loans from McDougal’s failed savings and loan association - a charge that Clinton has denied in previous testimony.
McDougal’s statement came after a cashier’s check of more than $20,000 from the defunct Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan Association was found in an abandoned car in Arkansas. Clinton’s lawyers said McDougal would have little credibility in court.
Ewing said that many Americans have discounted Paula Jones’ allegations, but added that if prosecutors are able to document that Clinton didn’t tell the truth, it would be serious for the president.
All the while, Clinton tried to cope with one of the more difficult issues of the post-Cold War presidency, dealing with an Iraqi dictator who defies the international community over inspections of weapons sites where the U.S. suspects Iraq may be producing nerve gas.
Though White House officials doubt that the Whitewater, fundraising and sexual harassment cases ultimately will damage Clinton, there is concern that in the short run they could prove distracting as Clinton tries to deal with more serious issues such as Iraq.
Saddam’s challenge to U.S. authority as the last remaining superpower has presented Clinton with a serious dilemma in deciding whether to use military action to force Iraq to back down and allow U.S. members of U.N. inspection teams to view Iraqi weapons sites. Instead of ordering military strikes, Clinton has sought to apply pressure on the Iraqi regime with tightened United Nations sanctions.
White House officials conceded that it hasn’t been a good week for the president, but they added that all the allegations in the end won’t amount to much.
As for the president being a lame duck, White House counselor Doug Sosnik said: “A lot of people in the past have counted out Bill Clinton. The only thing they have in common is that they have been proven wrong time and time again. This time will be no different.”
The biggest blow to Clinton came from members of his own party in the House of Representatives. Despite a furious last-minute campaign to win them over, the president had to admit defeat and pulled the fast track legislation from the floor early Monday.
“I think the president’s style got him in trouble,” Ewing said. “It is a style of wait until the last minute and come on like gangbusters. But he waited until after one of the party’s biggest supporters, organized labor, had weeks and weeks to line up votes. It left the president looking very weak.”
Georgetown University presidential scholar Steven Wayne said it’s too early to call Clinton a lame duck, especially with the economy so good and people paying little attention to political shifts.
McInturff said the problem with writing Clinton off is that his standing in the polls is high and that his fortunes could reverse quickly if, for example, he forces Saddam to back down.
The events of recent days are probably more damaging to Gore, noted McInturff. The fast-track vote illustrated the growing power of labor unions in the Democratic Party and will create tremendous internal friction in 2000 when Gore seeks the presidency, he said.