Clinton Steps Back

president clinton on 7-5-00, announcing the agreement for an Arafat-Barak summit on 7-11-00, in Washington
President Clinton, who has been as comfortable in the spotlight as any president in recent memory, is stepping back to open the political field to Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman.

Mr. Clinton said Wednesday that it's important for Gore and Lieberman, the Democratic nominees for president and vice president, "to go out and spread the message, engage in the debate and make sure the American people know what the choices are before them."

"The main thing is that the candidates carry the message and I think they're doing a fine job," he said.

Since he presented his political swan song at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles last week, Mr. Clinton has taken a mini-vacation at Lake Placid in New York, done a few low-key fund-raisers and avoided chances to trumpet the benchmarks of his nearly eight years in office.

That includes the fourth anniversary of the welfare reform law.

Mr. Clinton has often cited the law's successes, including cutting welfare caseloads by half. And he did that during his convention speech and in a brief written statement last week.

But he canceled a planned trip to Atlanta that had been designed to showcase the law and its impact. Staff members said that was a deliberate decision.

"I think that in the wake of the convention the president is focusing on foreign policy and framing the legislative debate in the fall and leaving the political field wide open for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman," said White House spokesman Jake Siewert.

That decision was part of a "collaborative effort" between the Gore campaign and White House chief of staff John Podesta, Siewert said.

The vice president's campaign chairman, William Daley, is in "regular contact" with Podesta and occasionally talks to the president, said Mark Fabiani, Gore's communications director. Fabiani characterized the contacts as "general coordination, nothing unusual."

Mr. Clinton shelved the Atlanta trip last Thursday, the day Gore went before the convention to declare himself "my own man."

Instead, the president has resumed his round of quiet political fund-raising receptions and dinners, often in the homes of wealthy Democratic contributors, out of sight of television cameras.

And he has set a series of overseas trips, including those this month to Colombia and Nigeria.

"I think the most important thing is for me to do as much as I can for the American people in the job I have between now and Jan. 20, and that's my main priority," Mr. Clinton said Wednesday.

He noted that he addressed two fund-raisers in Michigan on Tuesday for Senate candidate Debbie Stabenow and is addressing events on behalf of Democratic candidates in New Jersey.

"I will do some work within the limits of my ability to do it," Mr. Clinton said.

But he said the main thing is for Gore and Lieberman to push their policy proposals

"I think they're doing quite a good job of that," said the president.