High Hopes and Brave Hearts

January 17, 1993

In the American political system, nothing is more stimulating and healthier than the swing of the pendulum. Power corrupts, as they say, but it also enervates if held too long. The Reaganites who came to office full of verve twelve years ago were followed by Bushies whose idea of innovation was preservation of the status quo.

And so on Wednesday, the Republicans depart and the Democrats arrive, as they did in 1913, 1933 and 1961 at a time of pivotal change in national life.

One could compare Bill Clinton to Jimmy Carter -- a fellow Southerner, a fellow governor, a fellow moderate -- but any parallels with the last Democratic president are suspect. Nor are they especially desired.

If any bracketing is in order, it should be done hyper-cautiously with Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Clinton himself sees his position (or predicament) as somewhere between FDR and JFK. The economy is not nearly as devastated as it was for Roosevelt in the Depression; the Kennedy-style rhetoric of getting the country moving again is dwarfed by structural changes in the world and at home that Mr. Clinton must confront.

Despite polar differences in style and personality, a rough model for the next president might better be found in the early Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was a centrist Democratic with Southern roots who was propelled to the White House in a three-way election that split the Republican vote. He took office when pressures for profound domestic policy shifts led to tariff, banking and currency reforms of monumental scope.

Mr. Clinton also faces a major early test in foreign trade through his commitment to the North American Free Trade Agreement. While he is unlikely to create an agency as fundamental as the Federal Reserve System, he is faced with a deficit problem far greater than any in the nation's history -- a deficit problem that devours the nation's resources, undercuts its competitive position, erodes its living standards and severely limits a president's options.

Add to that a world whirling away from Cold War verities, just as Wilson's world saw the end of the old order. Even Balkan strife seems to confirm the Wilson-Clinton linkage.

Dare we go on? Woodrow Wilson was a historian of towering intellect, a college president (Princeton) and a governor (New Jersey) who was the 1912 equivalent of a public policy wonk. Mr. Clinton is a Rhodes Scholar and governor of Arkansas whose addiction to the intricacies of government was on view at his economic summit in Little Rock during the transition last month.

The president-elect's 46-year journey from the little town of Hope, Ark., to the White House is improbable enough to be authentically American.

Born after his father was killed in an accident, bullied by an alcoholic stepfather who abused his mother, forced by these circumstances to be an adult in his teen-age years, obsessed with an ambition to please and to succeed, an over-achiever at Georgetown, Oxford and Yale Law, a boy-governor who bounced back from defeat to get top grades from his peers, a long-shot entrant in a presidential race both Democrats and Republicans considered a shoo-in for George Bush, Mr. Clinton's victory in the 1992 election was a triumph in survival. Extramarital affairs, draft dodging, marijuana puffing -- he relied on luck, stamina and the gift of gab to push aside these obstacles and grab top prize.

The question now is whether he has the inner self-confidence to deal with the appalling challenges only a president experiences.

His tendency to equivocate or dodge can be an asset if handled with FDR-finesse in pursuit of his own goals and strategies. But the days when Bill Clinton can say he would vote for the use of force in the Persian Gulf even though he agreed with those who oppose it are over. The days when he can rely on his accommodative personality to reconcile irreconcilable viewpoints are over.

Decisions await. As Harry Truman knew, the buck stops at the president's desk.

After Wednesday at high noon, it will be President Clinton who has to decide precisely how he will fight the deficit, what tax changes and spending he will favor to stimulate the economy, when he will withdraw U.S. troops from Somalia or send them into harm's way in Bosnia or Iraq.

His Cabinet is in place, even if he has many lesser posts to fill. His first budget is due on Capitol Hill next month. Congress is itching to pass the family-leave legislation vetoed by President Bush. Big spenders and deficit hawks vie with one another in his inner entourage. Trouble lurks in Haiti, Bosnia, Russia and the Middle East. The testing time is here.

Any inauguration, every inauguration, is a magic moment of hope and renewal in the history of our country. The peaceful transfer of power is the glory of our democracy. This year it is no different.

No one knows how William Jefferson Clinton will perform once in the Oval Office, least of all Bill Clinton himself. But as he said on election night, "With high hopes and brave hearts, the American people have voted to make a new beginning."

The dreams and best wishes of his fellow citizens -- indeed of millions all over this troubled globe -- go with the next president as he takes his oath of office.

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