Once glib Clinton learns easy answer doesn't exist



WASHINGTON -- The country is learning something -- and perhaps quite a bit -- about Bill Clinton during this transition period. Among other things, we now know that, in contrast to President Bush, he clearly is a domestic policy wonk who likes to roll around in the details of the issues.

But the president-elect is learning a few things as well. One of them is that optimism and activism are not enough in themselves to solve the kind of complex problems he will be confronting when he moves into the White House next month.

At the moment, things could hardly be better. The most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll finds that the number of Americans who believe the country is "off on the wrong track," perhaps the single most telling political indicator, has dropped from 60 percent to 31 percent since the election.

That is a truly remarkable leap and one that is highly encouraging to business analysts looking first for signs of renewed consumer confidence.

So the president-elect has had a good six weeks. But it hasn't all been strawberries and cream.

Item: Clinton made a particular point of promising a tough code of ethics that would put an end to the "revolving door" through which government officials pass back and forth into lobbying.

But the task proved more complex than expected, and the new rules his transition team finally produced will cover only about a third of Clinton appointees and bar only specific and particularly offensive lobbying.

Item: The economic conference at Little Rock was, by almost any reckoning, a remarkable political achievement.

Clinton's receptivity to different ideas and his display of knowledge about complex questions was encouraging to constituencies as diverse as social workers and financial analysts.

But what Clinton did not get from the two-day meeting was the easy answer to the most vexing questions he will be required to answer if he is to be a success as president.

If there was a hard truth driven home to Clinton, it was that building a healthy economy for the long term requires reducing the federal deficit, which in turn requires a reduction in spending for entitlement programs, which in turn requires political will.

It was no accident that by week's end, the president-elect was musing in an interview about such things as raising the qualifying age for Social Security benefits and imposing taxes on capital gains at death -- ideas that somehow escaped his notice when he was running and they could have backfired.

Item: Clinton also has been given high marks for the quality of the people he has chosen for his Cabinet.

If they are not all giants of public service, neither are there any egregious political hacks being put forward as appointees with -- to use Richard M. Nixon's phrase from 1968 -- "extra dimensions."

But Clinton also has learned that he may have been a tad brash in his promise to put together a government that reflects the "diversity" of the country. In the end his Cabinet is likely to include at least a half-dozen of the usual suspects such as Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, designated for treasury, and Warren Christopher, the apparent choice for secretary of state.

So far Clinton has named only one woman to head a Cabinet department, Donna Shalala as secretary of health and human services.

And the activist women in his own party are not going to let him paper it over with such ruses as his invitation to Carol Browner, his choice for head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to take a seat at the Cabinet table.

Women cast more than half the vote Nov. 3 and they gave Clinton disproportionate support. It is now payback time.

It is not easy, however. Clinton apparently is determined to choose the first woman attorney general, although his first choice, Judge Patricia Wald of the U.S. Court of Appeals, turned him down.

But the leading candidates for all the other Cabinet seats -- state, defense, interior, agriculture, energy, education and transportation -- ostensibly are men. It would be no surprise if the delay in settling on some of them this weekend has been caused by a panicky new search for women.

The bottom line: If the transition has taught the country more about the president-elect, it has also taught Bill Clinton about the complexities of the presidency.

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