Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The 'Phil Donahue' Presidency Monday's Conference on Youth Violence Illustrates Clinton's Desire For

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The 'Phil Donahue' Presidency Monday's Conference on Youth Violence Illustrates Clinton's Desire For

Article excerpt

A town hall meeting. A national debate. A strategy session.

By now, it's part of the White House rhythm: If there's a national crisis, the president's sure to invite the country's best and brightest to talk about it.

That's exactly what's happened as a result of the Littleton, Colo., shootings, with religious, entertainment, Internet, and even gun-industry leaders expected at a White House confab Monday. The administration calls the event a "strategy session" to shape a national campaign against youth violence. Just last October, the White House hosted a summit on a similar topic: school safety. But while Mr. Clinton is winning praise for acting quickly, political observers and likely participants caution Americans not to expect too much from this policy powwow. The president, they say, may be the Phil Donahue of Social Security town-hall meetings, probing pros and cons and encouraging national debate. But getting from engaging talk to meaningful action is quite another matter - especially on a subject as complex and heated as this one, where much of the work to be done is at the local level, anyway. "The president loves nothing better than having a bunch of people around talking public policy," says Robert Reich, the president's former Labor secretary. "The downside is the potential for substituting words for actions. The public is very cynical about government right now." Clinton by no means has a lock on White House conferences, commissions, and blue-ribbon panels. Modern-era presidents have all appointed groups to discuss critical national issues such as civil rights, higher education, and clean air and water. But the number of efforts pales in comparison to those of today's professor president, whose first term was preceded by a two-day economics "seminar" on how to bring the US out of recession. That seminar actually did work its way into policy, finding expression in Clinton's 1993 economic plan, says Mr. Reich, who was present at that Little Rock, Ark., think-fest. But on balance, says Reich, the president's summits and conferences are more successful as a means of educating the public about an issue than as a precursor to passable legislation. For instance, two high-profile commissions - on Medicare and Social Security reform - disbanded with no consensus, and the outlook for real reform in both those areas is problematic. A promised national debate on affirmative action never really took off, and the president's commission on race crisscrossed the country for a year, producing a report that awaits follow-up with Clinton's own report on race. Political analysts don't lay all the blame at the president's feet. For one thing, he is operating with a divided Congress ruled by divided Republicans, and, up until this year of budget surpluses, has been tied up by fiscal constraints. …

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