Seemingly immune from scandal, President Clinton has so far avoided a falling out with the American public over the Monica Lewinsky investigation. But the embarrassing probe unmistakably has weakened his presidency, diminished his power and darkened his future.
A Republican Congress once eager to cooperate with Clinton on reforming welfare and balancing the budget now thumbs its nose at the beleaguered president. A White House that had been instrumental in setting Washington's agenda is instead preoccupied with the president's survival.Democrats hopeful of taking control of the House fret that Clinton's troubles will drag them down in November's mid-term elections. America's allies around the world worry that a U.S. president who needs to be strong in global affairs is distracted and even endangered.
"Who's looking after Kosovo? Who's worrying about Iraq?" said Vanderbilt University political scientist Erwin Hargrove. "I don't get the impression the president is at all involved in foreign affairs. There seems to be some concern abroad that he's not in charge."
"This has been in many respects a tragic episode in American politics," said Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "We have weakened the presidency and criminalized the political process."
"Whether the president can recoup, whether we can repair the damages caused by the zealousness of Ken Starr and the frenzy of the media and the lack of discipline by the president, who knows?" Mann said.
By any measure, 1998 has been a bust for Clinton.
The tobacco settlement that the White House hoped would be 1998's crowning achievement was shelved. So were Clinton proposals to raise the minimum wage, hire 100,000 new teachers, spend $21.7 billion on child-care initiatives and allow Americans as young as 55 to buy into the Medicare system.
"Congress really hasn't done anything, except name the Reagan airport," said University of Rochester historian John Mueller.
White House counselor Rahm Emanuel insisted Clinton still has clout - as demonstrated by the shrinking of tax-cutting proposals by GOP leaders in the face of opposition from Clinton and the Senate. "The president has stared down the Congress," Emanuel said. "If that's happening in the eye of the storm, I don't know how one concludes the president's power is diminished."
Constitutional scholars lament that court rulings have narrowed the boundaries of presidential privacy and privilege and established that presidents could be forced into civil litigation during their terms. Secret Service agents sworn to take a bullet for the president now may have to testify against him.
The Lewinsky scandal has had "a much greater impact than many people realize," said University of Pennsylvania presidential scholar Mark Rozwell.
"This is the stage of a second term when a president should be looking toward establishing his legacy and capitalizing on his popularity," Rozwell said. "Instead, this president and his administration are in a defensive mode trying to protect himself. Right now it's more about self-preservation than creating an enduring legacy for the future."