Power of Persuasion, or Talking to the Wind? ; Clinton May Be a 'Great Communicator,' but He's Had Trouble Translating His Bully Pulpit Skills into Legislative Results

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With no political muscle to strong-arm Congress, President Clinton's using one of the few options he has left: his powers of persuasion.

In his last year in office, Mr. Clinton is unleashing a torrent of rhetoric on such issues as gun control, a Medicare drug benefit, and permanent trade status for China. The hope is that Congress will knuckle under if the president can build enough public pressure for his agenda.

Considering his mastery of the microphone - and his limited influence as an impeached president heading for the exit - it's as good a strategy as any, political observers say. But they caution that while Clinton's speechifying may well shape the debate for this fall's elections, it's not likely to yield much in the way of legislative results.

Indeed, it's shaping up as one of the central ironies of Clinton's presidency: Although he may be remembered as one of the "great communicators," alongside leaders like Reagan and FDR, he has been largely unable to mobilize the public enough to push his ideas through a balking Congress.

"The last president who could really mobilize the public was Ronald Reagan. As popular as [Clinton] is, he still doesn't carry the same kind of clout in terms of converting that into political pressure on Capitol Hill," says Leon Panetta, former Clinton chief of staff and a congressman during the Reagan era.

And while the public may naturally empathize with the president's poll-tested ideas, these days it's hard for any single subject to move them up off the comfy couch of economic prosperity, Mr. Panetta explains.

At the same time, many members of the Republican-controlled Congress still have a visceral dislike of Clinton, and are unwilling to move in his direction, regardless of popular opinion.

That doesn't stop the White House from trying, of course. This week, for instance, the president held a full-fledged East Room press conference just to urge congressional action on his policy wish list - a mantra he's been reciting since January.

And since six-year-old Kayla Rolland was shot and killed in Michigan Feb. 29, Clinton has broadcast two radio addresses on gun control, summoned congressional leaders to the West Wing, held a rally of supporters under the chandeliers in the residence, and interviewed his way through network and cable TV. Along with his Cabinet's full-court press on China's trade status, it's been one of the most sustained PR efforts since the Yugoslav airstrikes last year.

Nonetheless, it was the threat of legal action - and not a galvanized public hounding Congress - that convinced leading handgun manufacturer Smith & Wesson to agree to gun-safety measures and restrictions on gun sales two weeks ago.

In fact, the president's appeals for "common sense" gun legislation have not pushed Americans into phone, fax, or e-mail overdrive, says a GOP staffer in the House. The phones have not been ringing off the hook in the office of Illinois Rep. …