The Clinton Nineties?

January 01, 1993

For the ninth time in this century, party control of the presidency will shift in the New Year. Taft to Wilson, Wilson to Harding, Hoover to Roosevelt, Truman to Eisenhower, Eisenhower to Kennedy, Johnson to Nixon, Ford to Carter, Carter to Reagan -- and now Bush to Clinton. It is always an exciting moment in the on-going story of American democracy. Not only is the transition a tribute to the strength of our political system; it ushers into office a chief executive who more times than not will put his personal stamp on an era.

The Eisenhower Fifties. The Reagan Eighties. Are we now about to launch into the Clinton Nineties? It is not a foregone conclusion. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush came zTC and went without materially changing the way Americans thought about themselves and their country. To achieve a deep impression, a president needs a purpose that juxtaposes nicely with the tides of history.

This assuredly must be President-elect Clinton's fondest dream -- one that should sustain him when he has to do what he thinks is right even if it draws storms of criticism and invective. The better presidents are those content with eventual rather than immediate judgments. The better presidents are those who correctly assess what conditions demand of them, and act accordingly.

So just what are the conditions this brand New Year of 1993 will impose on Bill Clinton?

"The economy, stupid," was the memorable in-house slogan of his winning campaign. He inherits a slow, dragging recovery barnacled with so many unusual factors that the experts can't agree whether it will boom or bust or just thump along like a car with a soft tire. He faces a world in which the No. 2 and No. 3 powerhouses, Japan and Germany, are sliding into recession before the United States has attained the momentum to provide a satisfactory counter-boost. He is confronted with federal deficits that limit his options, though America's health, education, welfare and physical infrastructure cry for attention.

In such circumstances, we have a New Year's wish for Bill Clinton and the nation. He leads a party with a penchant for hyper-criticism and declinism, which may have been appropriate with the collapse of Reaganomics. But now that Democrats rather than Republicans will be in control of the White House, Mr. Clinton's call for change has a bipartisan cutting edge.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose delight in juggling contrary ideas and ideologues is legendary, said at the moment of his inauguration that the only thing to fear in the Great Depression was fear itself. He raised his compatriots' eyes to distant horizons. At this moment, the only thing we need to restore confidence is confidence itself. This could be our next president's rallying cry. It could be the key to a Happy New Year.

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