WHEN liberal Democrats talk about the presidential election these days, they seem a bit like the bride determined that the groom not see her before the ceremony. They fear a jinx -- the jinx of optimism in this, their best-chance year in many years.
Which goes some way toward explaining why, if Bill Clinton wins -- don't say it, don't say it, don't even say it, they wail in certain circles, afraid of the unfamiliar feel of hope -- he will take office with the enormous curse of great expectations. You can sense it even now, one enormous what-if intake of breath in a body politic. Like some Arkansas atlas with other people's stuff sitting on his shoulders, Mr. Clinton will have traded in his own considerable baggage for the weight of a party that has been waiting to take power for a generation, a generation that has wondered how one of its own would shape public policy, and a public that is tired of more of the same.
Someone should make the guy a sampler: Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.
It is true that Mr. Clinton could make an enormous impact with certain constituencies early on. And he could do it with one hand tied behind his back.
With the other, he could sign the Freedom of Choice Act, making access to abortion a legal right for American women, and the family leave bill, which provides for time off to care for a newborn, a sick child or a failing parent.
He could end the indefensible ban on gays in the military and order the FDA to consider RU-486, the French abortion pill, purely on its medical merits, which would likely lead to its approval.
President Clinton could make Mario Cuomo, Laurence Tribe or someone less showy but equally inclined to civil liberties a justice of the Supreme Court.
But those acts do not a hundred days make. Too moderate for some liberals, too liberal for some moderates; too business-oriented for environmentalists, too environmentally hip for big business types; too busy being preternaturally ambitious to be a true child of the counterculture, too hamstrung by political realities to make the sweeping changes implicit in the generational and party differences between him and his opponent -- Bill Clinton has a historic opportunity to disappoint.
This is partly, too, because the big issue of this campaign may be one that no one can crack. President Bush's original problem with the economy was not inaction. It was reaction. He insisted that things were OK.
I don't know why no adviser told the president that nothing makes a working person idled by a recession madder than being told everything is fine, except maybe hearing members of Congress moan about their salaries.
Even today Mr. Bush is constitutionally incapable of talking about how bad things are without a chirpy addendum that recovery is right around the corner.
But the irony is that expectations for Mr. Bush, should he be re-elected, would be comparatively low; he need only do better than his first term, which would not be difficult. Many Americans, even some of his supporters, have accepted that the economy is an alligator and Bush is no alligator wrestler.
But empathy with our hard times will not be enough for Mr. Clinton, should he win. He has said he can wrestle the alligator, and he will be held to it.
Caught between party stalwarts who never met an entitlement program they didn't like and long-view guys like Paul Tsongas, who say it's time to get serious about the deficit despite the sacrifice required -- and who admit that this is a difficult thing for an elected official who likes the sound of the words "second term" -- Mr. Clinton is certain to let part of his constituency down.
You can tell that some voters are hearing "Happy Days Are Here Again" in the poll figures and focus groups. People who feared they would not see a federal abortion statute or an end to discrimination against gay citizens in the armed forces in their lifetime try to stop themselves from hoping too much. Hoping too much can be a problem. While Mr. Clinton and his people are concentrating on the first Tuesday in November, they need to wrestle soon with how to mute and milk the sweeping expectations that accompany their unexpected good fortune. Otherwise the background music might well be Fred Astaire: "I'm Building Up to an Awful Let-Down."
Anna Quindlen is a New York Times columnist.