Clinton gets a breather from mounting criticism ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- For any politician in trouble, the firs imperative is always changing the subject. For President-elect Bill Clinton, the combination of the hoopla over his inauguration and the attacks on Iraq are accomplishing just that purpose.

Clinton arrived here Sunday after a two-month transition operation that had started on a series of high notes, then gradually became tarnished by a series of controversies over his campaign promises and his Cabinet appointments.

Less than 90 days after being hailed as a political genius who had understood the dynamics of the 1992 electorate, Clinton was being depicted as a bumbler from Arkansas who might be out of his depth in big-league politics.

The attacks on Iraq have done much to put those controversies into perspective. Quibbling about whether a middle-class tax cut is a promise or a "goal" seems trivial in contrast to decisions about whether to continue bombing Saddam Hussein after noon tomorrow, when Clinton is sworn in.

Meanwhile, the extravagant celebrations under way here make it clear that there are indeed many Americans excited about the changing of the guard and hopeful about what it means for their futures. If they are preoccupied with what to do about the Haitian refugee problem, it has not been apparent.

For Clinton, the most important thing about the way the cameras have turned from Little Rock to the Lincoln Memorial and to Baghdad is that he now has some breathing room, time to regain his footing before his inaugural address.

In the campaign he showed himself to be a remarkably self-assured and disciplined politician capable of weathering controversies that might have buried many lesser political figures.

The same was true during the early days of the transition, at least through the two-day economic conference at Little Rock in mid-December that drew rave reviews for substance even from the most dubious critics.

The message at that point was the same one that had won him the election -- that is, that fundamental change in the economy is the central goal of his administration.

But the picture became less sharp and positive when Clinton encountered some problems in choosing a Cabinet with the diversity he had promised. Suddenly, he found it necessary to play some very old politics, for example, conducting a semi-public search for a woman to be attorney general in the face of feminist complaints that he was not meeting his commitment in that area. Then, to cite another example, he decided it was necessary to deep-six a political ally, Chicago banker William Daley, for secretary of Transportation so he could place another Hispanic-American, a change apparently required by the fact four blacks had been chosen for jobs of similar rank.

The perception of further deterioration hardened when the president-elect was faced with some realities he had chosen to ignore during the campaign. The budget deficit, it was turning out, will be too large to cut in half in his first term. The Bush administration policy on turning back the Haitians, it was concluded on further review, might have to be kept in place for a little longer.

Meanwhile, the staffing of his new administration was proceeding at a snail's pace, apparently because of his own insistence on taking an active part in going over the lists of names.

Finally, there were controversies over two of his Cabinet choices. He had chosen an attorney general, Zoe Baird, who had employed illegal aliens in her household and a Commerce secretary, Democratic National Chairman Ronald H. Brown, with a remarkable network of business connections that could raise conflicts for him in his new post.

The voters who elected Clinton apparently were never as alarmed by these things as was the political community. The latest round of opinion polls has found Clinton with a 70 percent approval rating, even though most voters believe he is reneging on his promises. And now, with the cameras turned on the pomp and revelry of the inauguration week and on those anti-aircraft guns firing in Baghdad, Bill Clinton's troubles have been squeezed off the front pages and out of the television networks' news reports. For the moment, at least, the subject has been changed.

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