Inaugural speech shows Clinton's determination On politics

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

January 21, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Although the rhetoric was somewhat more polished and extravagant, President Clinton's inaugural address sounded remarkably like the speeches he delivered all through the long campaign that brought him into the White House.

If there was an overriding theme, it was Clinton's emphasis on generational change -- the same emphasis that clearly was responsible for his success Nov. 3 in reversing a trend of the three previous elections and gave him a majority of the support of young people. "This is our time," he said. "Let us embrace it."

At several points, the Clinton speech was reminiscent of the last delivered by a president, John F. Kennedy, who represented a sharp break with the past. "Today," he said, "a generation raised in the shadows of the Cold War assumes new responsibilities in a world warmed by the sunshine of freedom but threatened still by ancient hatreds and new plagues."

Clinton made the usual gesture of praising the outgoing President George Bush for his long career in public service. And the only criticism directed at Bush and the Republicans who have reigned here for the last 12 years came largely by indirection. Thus, at one point, he said the nation had been called upon to "face hard truths and take strong steps." Then he added: "But we have not done so. Instead, we have drifted and that drifting has eroded our resources, fractured our economy and shaken our confidence."

At another point, he seemed to be speaking to the millions, many of them supporters of independent Ross Perot, who have become alienated by their feeling the government is in gridlock. "Today we pledge that the era of deadlock and drift is over, a new season of American renewal has begun," Clinton said.

There were also several references to the need for "responsibility" on the part of Americans, a theme Clinton stressed particularly when discussing welfare reform early in his campaign, then soft-pedaled when it was being interpreted in some Democratic constituencies as directed at blacks. It is now, he said, "time to break the bad habit of expecting something for nothing."

Perhaps the most direct criticism of the status quo was aimed, however obliquely, at Congress. The Capitol, Clinton said with a small gesture over his shoulder, is "often a place of intrigue and calculation. Powerful people maneuver for position and worry about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, forgetting those people whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way."

In the long run, Clinton's speech is not likely to prove memorable. The scene lacked the drama of Kennedy's inaugural -- all that snow and Robert Frost trying to reading his poem -- but Clinton did manage to send the central message: I haven't forgotten who elected me and why they did so.

To the extent that message is received, the new president may have bought some time for himself after a transition in which he seemed unable to avoid controversy over everything from the pace of his Cabinet appointments to his commitment to the promises he made during the campaign. As he takes office, Clinton is basking in the results of opinion polls that show the voters have been far more tolerant of his transition performance than the insiders in Washington and the national political community. One survey gave his transition performance 80 percent approval; others had figures in the high 60s and 70s.

The source of concern among Democratic professionals here, including many in Congress, is that this extraordinary support may erode rapidly if the idea he is stumbling into office begins to ripple across the land. Just 16 years ago Jimmy Carter began on a similar high after his celebrated inaugural walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, only to find himself in serious political distress before his first year in office had been completed.

But Clinton, unlike Carter, is a consummate politician who understands that successful leadership requires constant effort to keep his base of popular support. The voters sent him here to make fundamental changes in the economy and, perhaps more important, in the way business is done in Washington. If this speech is to be taken at face value, Bill Clinton is determined to do just that.

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