Clinton's First Year

January 23, 1994

In his inaugural address and his first Oval Office speech to the nation, Bill Clinton quoted only one president and only one phrase but quoted it twice. The president: Franklin D. Roosevelt. The phrase: "bold, persistent experimentation," the mantra for an activist, change-oriented government eager to take full advantage of its immense powers.

When President Clinton goes before Congress Tuesday night to deliver his first State of the Union address, he will still be far from his goals and dreams. But his era will truly have begun. What has transpired over the past 12 months has been largely the picking up or the patching together of pieces left over from the Reagan-Bush period.

The president's three major triumphs have been strictly in this category: a bill to curb runaway deficits, the North American Free Trade Agreement and a new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. George Bush would hardly have wanted anything different other than "no new taxes."

While his national service plan was an innovation, family leave provisions and research were fleshed-out initiatives ready to go once Mr. Bush departed. Even in the foreign field, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia were inherited hot spots in a world lacking consensus over where national power ends and international power begins.

If Mr. Clinton is to make a real imprint, it surely has to come when he presents a program that is wholly his. Its centerpiece will be a health care proposal that, if enacted, would be the biggest, boldest government experimentation since the New Deal -- a monument to federal planning that would enthuse a Harry Hopkins or a Harold Ickes.

But isn't the present White House incumbent supposed to be a "New Democrat," one pointing his Democratic Party toward center rather than to the left? Indeed Bill Clinton is both the president dedicated to "getting rid of welfare as we know it" and the president of a national health reform. It is his wont to trade and deal and flip and flop and do anything necessary to keep his adversaries off balance as he seeks success. Shades of FDR.

If his first year in office produced a series of self-induced embarrassments that were something other than success, it was not for lack of trying. Rather, it was a combination of bad luck, poor judgment, hubris and inexperience that led to incoherence in foreign policy, tripped-up Cabinet appointments, defeat on a stimulus bill that contradicted his deficit-restraint initiative, the Whitewater mess and turmoil in the White House.

Yet Americans are indulgent with the earnest young man they have elected to lead them. Mr. Clinton's approval ratings -- an impressive 60 percent -- reflect not only a recovering economy but a personal bond between president and people. If he now can work out a sensible compromise on health care, launch a workable job training program, keep pushing to make the country more competitive in world markets, mount a fight against crime and put his national security team in order, his second year can be more impressive than the first. There's plenty of room for improvement.

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