U.S. President Bill Clinton does not seem to know the meaning of the phrase “lame duck.” Although his successor will be sworn into office in less than a month, Mr. Clinton is pursuing a flurry of initiatives more worthy of a man taking office, rather than one packing his bags to go. His intentions may be good, but the timing is not. His actions could tie the next president’s hands. Go slow, Mr. Clinton.
Mr. Clinton was reportedly already thinking about his legacy less than halfway into his second term in the White House. It will be a complicated judgment. He has presided over the longest economic expansion in U.S. history and governed while the U.S. enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. Mr. Clinton made sustained and historic personal interventions in the peace processes in the Middle East and Northern Ireland. No other president has staked so much of his office’s prestige and power on such efforts.
At the same time, the cloud of personal misconduct hangs over his eight years in office. Mr. Clinton will be remembered for the Lewinsky scandal and the fact that he was only the second president in U.S. history to be impeached. The president who signed the North American Free Trade Agreement failed to get the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Land Mine Treaty and legislation enabling an international criminal court. Mr. Clinton apologized for the enslavement of Africans hundreds of years ago, but his administration looked away when hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were slaughtered only five years ago.
With that record, it is understandable that Mr. Clinton wants to do as much as possible in the time he has left. He is young and vigorous, and he will have ample time to assess the fruits of his presidency when he leaves Washington — all of which encourage him, no doubt, to do more. But there is far more at stake than Mr. Clinton’s legacy. He must be attentive to the needs of his country and the office. From that perspective, Mr. Clinton’s flurry of activity does the U.S. a disservice.
Mr. Clinton courts two particular dangers. The first is that he could narrow the options that Mr. Bush has when he takes office. Earlier this year, Mr. Clinton decided not to decide on deploying a national missile defense system, saying that his successor would be better able to make that choice. That was the right move.
In contrast, there is Mr. Clinton’s seeming eagerness to visit North Korea. By all appearances, Pyongyang is thawing, or at least it is ending its diplomatic isolation. Relations between the U.S. and North Korea have come a long way in the last six years, but they have further still to go. A visit by the U.S. president means far too much to the regime in Pyongyang to be rushed into. There is much business to be done and a presidential summit is a hefty carrot. It should not be used so quickly.
The second danger is that Mr. Clinton’s activism could diminish the clout the comes with the office. He may lead the last remaining superpower, but a president’s leverage and influence are limited in the best of circumstances; that of a lame duck is more limited still. While every president needs to take some risks and invest some political capital to push negotiations forward, there is the danger that failure will expose the limits of the office. No political leader should be able to thwart the president without paying a price. That may sound crude, but it is a fact. Thus, Mr. Clinton’s efforts to bridge the yawning chasm in the Middle East are laudable, but they carry very real dangers if they reveal that he has limited ability to influence the negotiators.
That is not to say that a president should not get involved. Rather, his intervention should always be a final act, not a preliminary. Moreover, the president must pick his battles well. Credibility is a diminishing asset.
Mr. Bush has declined to ask Mr. Clinton to slow down. He has rightfully said that there is only one U.S. president, and that is Mr. Clinton. He is right, but Mr. Bush should not have to wave off his predecessor. As Mr. Clinton has pointed out in recent days, the occupant of the White House is only a temporary resident, holding it in trust for those who will follow. His first obligation then is to the country and then the office, and only then should he consider his legacy.
Mr. Clinton is a young man — the second youngest president to take office and the youngest ex-president. He has plenty of time to burnish his record and erase some of the blemishes on his term in office.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.