Clinton sense of urgency creates bumpy beginning ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

January 16, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Watching President-elect Bill Clinton stumble through this most peculiar transition, there is an obvious temptation to conclude the sky is falling. In fact, however, Clinton probably has more time and opportunity to redeem himself than he seems to realize.

For one thing, the voters are not as focused as the political community on every indication from Little Rock that Clinton is having problems. For another, they are probably more tolerant than he realizes of his retreat on some of his campaign promises. Opinion polls consistently show that voters don't expect every promise to be kept and do understand that, as the president-elect put it himself in discussing Haiti, it would be "irresponsible for any president of the United States not to respond to changing circumstances." But, ironically, the Bill Clinton who understood the electorate so well last year seems not to understand it at all this year. The result is that he is making things worse for himself with testy exchanges with the press and with legalistic nitpicking arguments over exactly what he promised to deliver and when -- and even over what he said about policy toward Iraq in an interview.

The president-elect suggests, for example, that the tax cut for the middle class -- "The forgotten middle class," he liked to call it during the campaign -- was something that preoccupied reporters but never the voters. That idea, however, ignores the history of his debate with Paul Tsongas during the New Hampshire primary over this very issue. Candidate Clinton may have played down the tax cut later in the campaign, but he never abandoned it.

He says the pledge to cut the deficit in half in his first term has become a casualty of these new and higher estimates of the size of that deficit. But the greatest increase in those estimates came last August, and no one can recall candidate Clinton suddenly putting qualifiers on his promise. He pledged to have the bills to carry out his economic plan "ready the day after I'm inaugurated." That would be next Thursday but, unsurprisingly, it may take a little longer, just a tad. Among the other things that won't happen Thursday will be a reversal of the Bush administration policy on accepting Haitian refugees. It turns out that will take a little longer, too.

What makes all this so striking, of course, is that it is happening even before Clinton takes the oath of office. Even Jimmy Carter ** sailed through the first six or seven months of his stewardship -- ++ until the eruption of a controversy over the banking practices of his budget director Bert Lance -- before he began to take any serious heat.

To some extent, this rush-to-judgment about Clinton is a direct product of the urgency Clinton himself gave to his demand for "change" in the way things are done in Washington and to his insistence that the problems of the economy could not be allowed to fester untended even a day after the Republicans were driven from the White House. In the end, the president-elect raised expectations that cannot be fulfilled on a crash timetable.

But Clinton probably has more room to maneuver than he is being accorded right now. None of his promises had the ring of certitude of "read my lips." And none will be remembered even two years from now if the new president can show some successes by them.

That is the critical point. Clinton has taken substantial criticism for the old-politics appointive gymnastics required to appease every constituent group in forming his Cabinet. He has taken more criticism for the deliberate pace he has followed in making up his government. And he is taking more insider criticism now for bickering with reporters, as unpopular as they may be, over what was a promise and what was a goal.

But the issue that elected him was economic. And if the economy improves over the next two years, Clinton's original problems with developing a program will be forgiven. Similarly, if he produces a proposal for serious reform of the health-care system, no one is likely to continue carping about how he spoke too soon on the Haitians. If he runs an administration that seems coherent and effective, who is going to make a federal case out of his inability to cut the White House staff by 25 percent?

The only real danger of Clinton in his rough transition is that the new president and those around him will fall into a familiar pattern of being on the defensive and blaming their political opponents and the press for their failures. As George Bush demonstrated, that doesn't work.

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