Clinton inaugural address should remember the people who voted for him INAUGURATION 1993

January 20, 1993|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Just a year ago candidate Bill Clinton was fighting for his political life in New Hampshire, his prospects threatened by allegations that he had engaged in a 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers and had dodged the draft during the Vietnam war.

Mr. Clinton survived by showing remarkable political discipline and remaining focused on his basic message that he was a candidate who represented dramatic change and a serious effort jTC to carry out fundamental economic reforms. When the votes were counted in the primary, he finished a strong second to former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, proclaimed himself the comeback kid" and marched on inexorably to the Democratic presidential nomination and the White House.

Taking office today, Mr. Clinton is under pressure to show similar political discipline in the face of less spectacular but even weightier distractions: the uneven course of his transition, the questions about his campaign promises and Cabinet choices, the vexing situations that require American military forces to be active in Iraq and Somalia, the continuing crisis in Bosnia.

Like the New Hampshire vote 11 months ago, the inaugural address can give Mr. Clinton essentially a clean slate in the months ahead so long as he uses it to show that, as he put it the other day, "I'll remember the people who sent us here."

A fresh round of inaugural eve opinion polls indicate the president-elect will take office at noon today with an enormous reservoir of good feeling in the electorate.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll found, for example, that 81 percent of the voters approve of how he has handled the transition. Mr. Clinton's overall approval rating was 60, his disapproval only 20. Other surveys produced similar results.

What these figures suggest is that the voters at large have been less disturbed than the political community about the less-than-sure-footed transition over the last two months.

But Mr. Clinton and his advisers recognize that the doubts inside the Beltway inevitably will ripple into the electorate at large if they are not quelled. As a leading Senate Democrat put it privately, "He needs to show he's focused on the things that matter."

There was one cautionary note in the new polls. The number of Americans who believe the country is "off on the wrong track," rather than "heading in the right direction," rose from about 50 in the afterglow of the election to 60 percent -- a level that politicians take as an early warning sign.

In this case, a lower "wrong track" number is particularly important because it implies the kind of consumer confidence that is essential to economic recovery.

To a large degree, Mr. Clinton's transition problems grew out of ++ his own rhetorical extravagance during the campaign -- his promises to give the middle class a tax cut, reduce the federal deficit by half in his first term, submit an economic program on his first day in the Oval Office, reverse President Bush's policy of intercepting and returning refugees to Haiti.

In all these cases, and several others, the candidate found it easy to be a crowd-pleaser but the president-elect has learned it is not that easy to deliver.

What has caused the uneasiness among Democratic professionals, however, has been the way the president-elect seemed to make the problems into continuing issues by not simply facing up to them.

Instead, he either passed the blame to the Bush administration for misleading information on the size of the deficit, or to the press for continuing to push him to concede he was reversing himself on the tax reduction question.

Mr. Clinton's style during the transition also has contributed, for better or for worse, to high expectations for his administration.

Most presidents-elect take a post-election vacation, then spend the interim meeting privately with advisers on personnel and policies. But Mr. Clinton has been extremely visible thinking out loud about issues, particularly in a two-day economic conference at Little Rock in mid-December.

The new president's personnel problems also have proven far more complex than he expected. Several key appointments -- for attorney general, for example -- were delayed as he sought the correct mix to achieve the diversity and political balance to which Mr. Clinton committed himself.

Some choices -- most notably Chicago banker and Democratic wise man William Daley for transportation secretary -- were thrown over the side for similar reasons.

The result has been a de facto blockage in the pipeline that means that many important subcabinet offices will be vacant after the Republicans leave at noon today -- a situation that contributes to the perception Republicans are encouraging of a small state governor out of his depth in Washington.

But Mr. Clinton has golden opportunities to right himself in the next few days. He is expected to demonstrate who's in charge here by issuing executive orders to reverse the so-called gag rule that prohibits doctors from giving advice on abortion at federally funded clinics and to reverse the general prohibition against fetal tissue research.

But these are issues of more interest to insiders and special constituencies than to the electorate at large.

Mr. Clinton's prime opportunity will be the one presented by the inaugural address at noon. That is when he can remind voters why they supported him in New Hampshire and in the general election -- because he is promising fundamental change from the old ways.

Bill Clinton showed last year that he could put sideshow issues behind him. The first priority for him now is to do the same as he moves into the Oval Office.

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