Clinton faces test of boldness With voters primed for big changes, desire to go carefully is risk in itself

January 17, 1993|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- Seeking to set the tone for his presidency Bill Clinton has portrayed himself as a veritable one-man Mount Rushmore.

He's John F. Kennedy, grabbing the torch on behalf of a new generation of Americans. He's Franklin D. Roosevelt, jump-starting the country with an explosive First 100 Days. He's Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln -- whose home and memorial are, respectively, the start and finish lines of today's carefully scripted Clinton bus ride -- coming to power at a turning point in history.

But once he's sworn in Wednesday, Mr. Clinton will start carving out his own style of leadership. Whether the image he leaves behind matches those he's invoking now will likely depend on whether he is bold enough to propose sweeping changes.

"People really expect Bill Clinton to make changes in the government and that it will not be business as usual. Ultimately, that is the standard by which he will be judged," says Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic political consultant.

"Clinton has far more to lose in the long run by not being a president of change than he does by being a president who does controversial and unpopular things," he said.

Mr. Clinton's political advisers agree. But even they seem to be wondering whether he'll take big risks.

Asked if the new president would be able to satisfy the public's expectations, Stanley Greenberg, the new White House pollster, replied, "As long as he's bold." He went on to say that Mr. Clinton should be able to maintain popular support well into his presidency "if he's bold and if he's getting Congress to go along."

As the newly elected governor of Arkansas in 1979, Mr. Clinton pushed an ambitious reform agenda, only to find himself voted out of office the next year. That painful lesson, which made him far more cautious during his subsequent terms as governor, might be the wrong one to apply to the presidency, where the first term is usually the last chance to get big things done.

Questions about Mr. Clinton's commitment to change stem in part from his actions during a rocky postelection transition. He has backed away from a host of campaign promises, including pledges to give middle-class Americans a tax cut, reduce the deficit by half, trim the White House staff by 25 percent and give refuge to Haitians who try to immigrate to the United States.

The president-elect reacted sharply last week to criticism that he was flip-flopping on these promises, suggesting that Americans would judge him on his performance on the "big things": reducing the deficit, reforming health care and presiding over a growing economy.

"Nobody can do all the things he promised," says a Washington lawyer who was a senior official in the Carter administration. "He's realized that, and he's begun to disappoint people."

The real danger is that Mr. Clinton won't go far enough, for fear of offending friends and supporters. "Clinton is a person who congenitally doesn't like to displease people," says the White House veteran, speaking on condition he not be named.

The defining test of Mr. Clinton's commitment to change may well come during his First 100 Days -- which he once said would be "the most productive in modern history." As he puts together a budget package, he will confront a number of painful choices: where to cut spending, where to raise taxes, whose ox to gore.

Those choices will be complicated by politics. Mr. Clinton must try to hold together his electoral coalition -- a disparate group that includes Reagan Democrats and independents opposed to the notion of tax increases, as well as traditional Democrats with pent-up demands for more government spending -- while at the same time broadening his appeal to Ross Perot supporters, who remain hostile toward Washington.

The perception that he was bowing to pressure from interest groups during the Cabinet selection process may lead Congress to conclude that he can be pushed around, some Clinton advisers fear, especially on the politically important issues of campaign finance and lobbying reform.

Already, his actions are threatening to chip away at one of Mr. Clinton's most potent political assets: his claim to be a different kind of Democrat who would reinvent government and bring Washington's influence peddlers to heel.

His nominees for secretary of commerce, Ronald H. Brown, and trade representative, Mickey Kantor, have come under fire for their work as highly paid lawyer-lobbyists. It was disclosed that his choice for attorney general, Zoe E. Baird, a wealthy corporate lawyer, failed to pay Social Security taxes for her nanny and part-time driver, both illegal aliens.

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