Early in his first term, some of Bill Clinton’s detractors liked to say that he was “acting like he was governor of the United States, not president.” It was a put-down that suggested he had not made the transition from his previous job in Little Rock, that he was thinking in petty terms and not in the dimensions the White House required.
Clinton overrode that objection so well that this week found him delivering his fifth State of the Union address. And he still sounds very much like the governor of the United States. He is never happier than when he is hobnobbing with his former colleagues in the National Governors’ Association, who were in town just before the speech.
As my colleague Dan Balz has pointed out, the topics on which Clinton is focused are the same issues that dominate the governors’ “state of the state” messages: crime, welfare, taxes, health care, the environment and - most of all - education. These are matters that, for the most part, traditionally have been the province of state and local government. But now they are the heart of the presidential program.
The best explanation of this turnabout comes from Alice Rivlin, who was director of the Office of Management and Budget in Clinton’s first term and now is the vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. In 1992, just before Clinton’s election, Rivlin published a small book in which, as a liberal Democrat, she argued that Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush were not wrong in attempting to shift power and responsibility from Washington to the states. The federal government, she said, has too much on its plate and would benefit from focusing on fewer concerns. State and local officials would be strengthened by having more autonomy in dealing with certain matters. Most of all, badly damaged public confidence in government, at all levels, might be restored if clear lines of responsibility were established and voters knew who to hold accountable for delivering the services they want.
Rivlin offered her own formula for sorting out which level of government should do what - a rational scheme that bears little relationship to what is actually happening these days. Those things which require flexibility of administration and face-to-face relationships - such as education and crime-fighting - should be handled at the state and local level, she said, while those that require large-scale check-writing and uniform practice - such as welfare - belong at the national level.
Instead, welfare has been handed to the states while Clinton is pushing crime and education programs.
When I went to see Rivlin last week, she said that four years on the inside of the Clinton administration had helped her understand why the sorting-out process was headed down such a wayward path.
“Things that we have always considered purely federal responsibilities are going very well,” she said. “Defense - we are at peace and our power in the world is largely unchallenged. The national economy - it’s in great shape at the moment, with steady growth and low inflation. Social insurance - there are some future problems with the retirement of the baby-boom generation, but the elderly have been lifted out of poverty and they are getting their medical care.”
“What people are really worrying about are the things going on in their own neighborhoods - crime, drugs, the problems in the schools. And when you’re president, you want to deal with the things people are worrying about.”
Rivlin said that part of Clinton’s urge to involve himself in what are essentially local and state matters stems from the fact that “he thinks about these things as a governor does,” having spent the better part of two decades in state government. But a larger factor is the media climate.
“With television, the president is so much in every living room that he is a more familiar figure than the governor or the mayor. And local and state officials have so much access to the president and the Cabinet members that when there is a local problem, federal officials feel they have to respond.”
“But it leaves the president in a dilemma,” Rivlin said. “He really can’t promise too much, because there’s only so much he can deliver. The federal government can set standards. It can provide some financial help. The president can be a cheerleader for community efforts and Clinton is doing a lot of that. But when it comes to things like crime and schools, he has to acknowledge that he can’t fix the problems from Washington.”
The fixes aren’t in Washington for the things that people really want done. Clinton may talk a governor’s talk, but only a real governor can walk the walk.
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