Fifty-eight members of his own party helped House Republicans block a Clinton-backed $33 billion crime bill by a 225-210 vote. At the same time, Democratic support for health-care reform appears precarious in Congress.
Why do so many Democrats refuse to march to Clinton's drumbeat, especially when the very core of his legislative program is at stake? Typically, Democrats are divided about why they are divided.
Some say the split is merely another example of the historic diversity, philosophical schisms and lack of cohesion that have splintered the Democratic Party since New Deal days.
"Tip O'Neill (the late House speaker) used to say this Democratic Party would be five political parties if it were in Europe," House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D., Wash.) recalled Friday.
"Democrats, as a group, represent a much wider spectrum of economic, ethnic and social interests (than Republicans)," said Rep. Butler Derrick (D., S.C.), the chief deputy Democratic whip.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D., Colo.) was blunt: "We've got a whole group of little warlords. . . . How do you herd these cats?"
Clinton's low popularity - a 48 percent approval rating in recent polls - makes it easier for Democratic members of Congress to side with the loudest voices in their districts, especially in this election year.
"His ability to be politically helpful to (House Democrats) is limited," Derrick observed. "So there's really no downside in saying no to him."
"It is true," agreed Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D., Del.), "if the President of the United States had a 90 percent favorable rating, he would be able to do better battle with the NRA."
But allies of Clinton cite polls showing wide public support for anti-crime and health-reform measures. They suggest that members of Congress voting against them risk a political backlash.
The crime bill was blocked by a coalition of Republicans, anti-gun-control Democrats mainly from rural areas, and blacks opposed to expanding the number of federal crimes punishable by death. Blacks also faulted the bill for lacking any protection against racial discrimination in capital punishment.
The National Rifle Association campaigned vigorously against the bill's ban on 19 assault weapons. Opposing the NRA would be "just like putting a gun in your mouth in rural Texas," Rep. Charles Wilson (D., Texas) told the Washington Post.
In an election year especially, "people here feel very vulnerable to the loud, single-issue groups, like the gun fanciers back home," Derrick said.
"Add to that the fact that modern communications technology amplifies the voice of these militant minorities, and members feel intimidated," he said.
Other analysts say congressional clout has grown in the last two decades.
In a recent article, Joseph A. Califano, a former top aide to Democratic Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, called Congress "the King Cong of Washington's political jungle."
Congressional distrust of presidents has persisted since Watergate and the
Vietnam War, and members of Congress no longer need the president to dole out patronage or raise money for them, Califano argued.
At the White House, deputy communications director Rahm Emanuel blamed ''special interests that have locked Washington up for years" and a Congress "still wedded to old habits" of bowing to them.
The President's real problem, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D., Wis.), boils down to numbers.
Because there are fewer Democrats in the House than in years past, and ''only a tiny handful of moderate Republicans," the President has "a much thinner operating margin," Obey said.
As the week ended, Clinton began stepping up his drive to change the House numbers on the crime bill, and Foley predicted an overwhelming victory for the President this week.
"That (crime bill) vote will not stand," Clinton told a national police group Friday in Minneapolis. "On this issue, the American people are not going to take no for an answer. . . . I'm not going to let you be outgunned."
Clinton's aides insisted he would wind up the political winner.
"The President is standing with law enforcement officers, and the Republicans are standing with the NRA," an aide said. "They're on the wrong side of this thing, and they know it."