As he closes the last big political campaign of his career, President Clinton is giving voters he meets a little project to take home. Before they go to bed that night, he tells them, they should think about what they want the country to look like in the next century. Try to boil the vision down to a sentence or two. Just like he does.
Summarizing complex hopes into 30-second sound bites is one of the lessons Clinton learned in a quarter century of politics. He has campaigned for office in 10 of the past 12 even-numbered years. He says he will stop running on Nov. 5.
The insatiable Energizer Bunny of the campaign trail will become Clinton Unplugged. So what does he have in store for a second term if he never has to face the judgment of the voters again?
Clinton answers that question with a pledge to include everyone in what he calls the "American dream."
"I think everybody should have the chance to live out their dreams and to live up to their God-given capacities," he says.
That's an enticing promise in a country still divided by inequalities along lines of race, gender and income. But the realities of a second term make it likely that many of those problems would remain even after four more years of Clinton's high hopes and grand visions.
And, if you listen carefully, Clinton is talking as if he has learned as much. Long gone is the big government-solves-all-philosophy that led Clinton to propose a universal health program in 1992. As he put it this year, "the era of big government is over."
A centrist at heart
To be sure, the notion of Clinton finally unleashed from the constraints of a campaign has Washington wondering what is truly in his soul. GOP nominee Bob Dole and other Republicans say that Clinton would show his true colors as a liberal. Hillary Rodham Clinton would return to prominence as well, goes this theory promoted by Republicans and conservative Democrats.
Clinton and his aides insist he's a centrist at heart. They say he would concentrate on a fairly sober "to do" list: balance the budget, find work for welfare recipients who will lose their benefits, extend educational opportunities to prepare Americans for the new, fast-paced job market.
In his campaign speeches, Clinton has sketched a framework in which the government, businesses and communities work toward a set of goals that he has identified _ meant, generally, to end some of the inequalities in the country.
So, he jawbones businesses to hire welfare recipients, with the enticement of tax breaks. He pledges to raise reading skills of third-graders, but calls for an army of volunteers to help. It seems unlikely he would raise taxes in a big way. Nor has he shown any desire to create major new government programs.
"Republicans all think liberals just want big government. There are other forms. Liberalism might mean a sense of citizenship. What we're hearing from Clinton is another strain of American liberalism," said Peri Arnold, a professor of government at the University of Notre Dame.
Clinton would be the first Democrat re-elected to a second term since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. But only three presidents since then have won a second election: Republicans Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. And in all of U.S. history, only 14 presidents have won election to a second term, and only 11 of those completed the entire second lap.
Typically, the presidents who have been fortunate enough to be elected to a second term seek to carve out their place in history. Then, the events take over _ scandal in the case of Nixon and Reagan, or a stubborn Congress, or the diminished energy of an aging incumbent.
"Your ratings go up. You get a big bump from the election. Then, it gets destroyed by something," said Howard McCurdy, professor of government at American University.
Any number of things could damage Clinton. Most prominently, independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation into Whitewater is continuing. Foreign policy crises loom in the Middle East, Russia and Bosnia; Clinton must decide whether to keep U.S. troops in Bosnia the next few months. On the domestic front, the cost of Medicare and other entitlements drain the budget.
Unlike Reagan, it would be hard to believe that the energy of the 50-year-old Clinton would wane. And as a youngish man, he can be expected to live through the historians' early reviews of his presidency. He speaks in grand terms about the dawn of the 21st century, the rush of technology that has made the Internet a household word in the past four years, and the interdependence of nations of the world.
"The issue is how will we respond to these challenges? How will we make these changes our friend? How will we be able to meet the challenges and preserve our values?" Clinton asks.
Though Clinton's campaign rhetoric hasn't provided answers to the tough questions ahead for the country, he clearly is a man who wants to earn a spot in history. Foreign policy is one area to which many second-term presidents turn. But, in the eyes of some scholars and government experts, Clinton could switch course from what Arnold calls his "presidency of small ambitions" to take on one of the trouble spots the country faces.
One oft-repeated suggestion is entitlements. Having spent this campaign savaging Republicans over their plan to save Medicare, Democrats may have earned the trust of voters to go ahead with the spending slow-down necessary to save the program. Clinton could go down in history as the president who saved Medicare.
"It takes Democrats to be responsible on Medicare," said Deborah Steelman, a Republican health care policy analyst.
Outside forces, though, could divert Clinton even if he wanted to choose that path. In this case, it is Congress: A Democratic majority might be less willing to go along with trimming Medicare spending than the Republicans. By the same token, Clinton might be urged to expand government programs if the Democrats win back one or both houses in November's election.
That's one reason why many analysts speculate that Clinton would be better off with a Republican-run Congress. No matter who is in charge of the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, though, most see Clinton as a pragmatist _ and one who understands the country is in no mood for expensive new programs.
"If you look back on Bill Clinton's career, you see a guy who surveys the political landscape about once every 15 minutes," said Cal Mackenzie, a professor of government at Colby College. "I guess the real Bill Clinton is a fairly cautious player."
Clinton has laid out a series of small steps aimed at providing access _ but not certainty _ to the American dream of doing better than your parents did.
He would expand health care for poor children, protect all children from tobacco advertising, grant tax breaks to make community college universal, maybe expand job training. He has hinted at entitlement reform, but has kept a solution vague.
"He's going to win by a landslide, almost certainly, but he's not going to win with a big mandate," said John Woolley, professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Whatever course he chooses, if re-elected, the advice from outside is to get going quickly because a president's political capital wanes as his second term gets older. But that, too, could be trouble for Clinton. He has proven to be far better at reacting to the GOP agenda than setting a clear path himself. Furthermore, the likely loss of key staff members could slow his take-off in a second term.
Widely respected chief of staff Leon Panetta is likely to leave. Clinton intimate George Stephanopoulos has told an interviewer he may depart, too. And a flock of Cabinet officers, including Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, may bow out in a second term.
Filling those slots quickly is vital to success. But Clinton was pokey four years ago.
"Clinton's first term was the slowest in history," said Colby College's Mackenzie, who has studied presidential transitions. "If the Republicans control the Senate, it might take at least as long to get up and running in the second term."
Clinton himself likes to joke that the 1996 campaign is his last, unless he should decide to run for the school board somewhere. But among Democratic insiders, the Clinton White House in a second term would be geared toward yet another campaign _ that of Vice President Al Gore's run in 2000.
Gore, who first ran for president in 1988, is widely viewed as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2000. As Clinton's partner, he has played a high profile role in U.S.-Russian relations and in shaping the administration's environmental policy toward the Everglades.
His prospects would increasingly shape what Clinton does in the next four years. Taking big risks _ an unexpected tax increase, big cuts in Medicare, a foreign policy venture _ would be weighed against how it would affect Gore's chances.
Meantime, the vice president is leaving little to chance. So it was that a small group of fund-raisers were summoned to a private party at the Democratic National Convention in August, where Al and Tipper Gore introduced a couple of special friends. They were two Democrats running for office in New Hampshire _ the first presidential primary state in the year 2000.
So the campaign never does end, after all.
Clinton's campaign promises
Reduce $100-billion from the growth of Medicare spending; have a bi-partisan commission propose solutions on a long-term solution to the looming bankruptcy of the system's hospital trust fund.
Balance budget by 2002
Have a commission recomend adjustments to the program to cover the retirement of baby boomers.
Raise reading skills so third-graders can read at the third-grade level.
Opposes school vouchers for private schools, but favors the increased involvement of parents in charter schools.
Make two years of college education as universal as four years of high school is now.
Offer tax breaks of up to $1,500 to cover two years of college.; tax deduction of up to $10,000 for the cost of tuition.
Add 1-million children to Medicaid, work with states to add 2.2-million more people.
Subsidize private health insurance premiums for six months to workers who lose their jobs.
Extend respite care to 1-million families who have an Alzheimer's patient in their family.
Offer tax incentives to businesses to hire former welfare recipients forced off the rolls by the 1996 welfare reform bill he signed. Goal is to get jobs for 1-million former welfare recipients.
Born: Aug. 19, 1946, Hope, Ark.
Education: Georgetown University, degree 1968; Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, 1968-70; Yale Law School, degree 1973
Military service: None
Family: Wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton; daughter Chelsea
Career: Taught constitutional law, University of Arkansas; state attorney general 1977-79; governor 1979-81 and 1983-91; president 1993-present
Source: Compiled by David Dahl and Katherine Gazella of the Times Washington Bureau