WASHINGTON -- It is becoming clear that Bill Clinton i discovering what all presidents-elect seem to learn: that it is often much easier to talk during the campaign about what you intend to do than it is to do it once you get here. What he needs to remember right now is why he was elected in the first place.
At the moment, the focus is on the new estimates showing the federal deficit will be somewhat higher than Clinton had been led to believe when he was making all those extravagant promises. The only surprise here is that anyone should be surprised. When is the last time the deficit estimates were overstated? Is this the first time anyone accused Dick Darman of playing political games with the figures?
The significant thing is that Clinton is now being forced to make -- or at least consider -- some changes in his priorities. He must decide whether to go ahead with his plan for a short-term stimulus to the economy through additional spending on the infrastructure, whether he should go ahead with his plans for a middle-income tax reduction, whether he should scale back on his promise to cut the federal deficit in half during his first term and what he should do about long-term investment to rebuild the economy so the United States can compete more effectively in the international economy.
The preliminary signals are that the deficit will get the highest priority. But the new Democratic president can expect quick applications of new pressure from some of his most important constituents -- big city mayors, for example -- who have been counting on the infrastructure spending to create some instant jobs in their communities. And he can expect -- indeed already is receiving -- partisan complaints from Republicans that he is reneging on his promise of a middle-class tax cut.
None of these decisions will be easy, but Clinton needs to remember what got him where he is today. And the one thing that was most obvious in the 1992 election is that the voters were preoccupied by the condition of the economy and wanted someone other than George Bush to manage it. That reality suggests that the president-elect's first priority should be whatever steps he believes will produce more decent jobs for the indefinite future -- whether it is deficit reduction, stimulus or 00 tax cuts.
At the same time, Clinton should remember that the voters wanted "change" not only in the management of the economy but in the way things are done in Washington. And that, in turn, suggests that he would be making a mistake if he dwells on whether the outgoing Republican administration pulled a fast one in giving him deficit estimates that were too low until after the election. If there was one thing apparent about the voters of 1992, it was their distaste for politics as usual, which includes blame-placing.
The other side of that coin is that the voters probably are far more receptive than they have been at many times in the past to candor from the Oval Office. Voters are often more willing to face reality than most politicians dare believe. If Clinton tells them the tax reduction has to be delayed because it would interfere with putting the nation's economy on a sound footing, many of them will be willing to accept that explanation if they are convinced the reasons are valid. Polls made in the campaign showed most voters didn't believe they would get the tax cut anyway.
One clearly valid argument that Clinton already is making is that the reform of the health care system is an essential to any long-term improvement in the economy. That is something voters, many of them worried about their own situations, understand fully and recognize cannot be accomplished overnight.
Like most newly elected presidents, Clinton comes to Washington with an enormous reservoir of good will. The simple fact of his election and the promise of change apparently played a significant part in the rise in consumer confidence demonstrated in the holiday buying period, a trend some economists believe points to the end of the recession and increases in federal revenues that, in turn, could help Clinton deal with the deficit.
So Bill Clinton has some special clout right now, just as most of his predecessors have enjoyed at this point. The question is always how any new president chooses to spend that asset.