WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- All that talk about how Bill Clinton was getting off to such a slow start by failing to more quickly announce appointments to his Cabinet sounds pretty foolish in light of his first full-fledged press conference as president-elect. He was impressive.
More important for an unmeasured national figure than satisfying such critics with lightning-fast selections for top administration posts was providing assurance that, as a relatively young newcomer at 46, he was proceeding with his feet on the ground.
This Clinton did in rather spectacular fashion, emphasizing the need to address the nation's economic condition in a disciplined and deliberate manner, not promising "any overnight miracle" but pledging progress in coping with problems that did not develop overnight.
For any new leader, conveying a sense of stability in the transfer of power is critical. In this regard, Clinton was reassuring not only in the specificity with which he dealt with a range of questions, but also in the inclusiveness of his remarks. He made clear he intended to reach out to members of the opposition party in fulfillment of his campaign pledge to run an administration "that looks like America."
Although he didn't identify the principal players in the new administration, Clinton was quite clear on his top domestic and foreign priorities. He had mentioned them all in the campaign, but candidates have a way of forgetting what they've promised after the election. Clinton was saying now that this is what he intends to do -- with no votes at stake.
On the domestic side, he listed both short- and long-term programs for economic growth and job creation; deficit reduction; controlling "the exploding cost" of health care; political campaign reform and his national service plan for universal college education in return for two years of military or community service.
On the foreign-policy side, he specified downsizing the defense budget without impairing military strength, reducing stockpiles of nuclear weapons and their proliferation to other countries, keeping the Middle East peace talks on track and strengthening the global economy.
Furthermore, Clinton signaled some actions he intends to take at once, by executive order.
He said he will get rid of the "gag rule" banning medical personnel in facilities receiving federal funds from offering counseling on abortion, and end the mandatory turning back of Haitian refugees, giving them some recourse first to establish grounds for political asylum.
On the jobs front, where he will face the closest initial scrutiny, he said he will ask Congress to adopt an investment tax credit that he said will lead to investment in new plant and equipment, meaning half a million private-sector jobs in the first year.
He said he also will try to accelerate investment in public infrastructure in the first year. This is another step that could result in a quick boost in employment and create a sense of action in contrast with the prime gripe against President Bush -- that he never grasped the depth of voters' concerns about the economy.
Most important, Clinton conveyed the notion that he was on top of things and loving it. Asked whether he felt he was already
being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead of him, he grinned and replied: "No. I'm having a wonderful time. I mean, it is an enormous responsibility, but I asked for it, and it's an indulgence to feel overwhelmed by it."
His performance was not, to be sure, without some of his trademark artful dodging. Asked whether he'd like to have Ross Perot among the leading businessmen he is gathering for what he called a "retreat" on what to do about the economy, Clinton said he "wouldn't be uncomfortable" about it -- but didn't issue an invitation.
Overall, however, the president-elect was straightforward and brimming with confidence as he faced the journalistic lions.
And while saying is not doing, Clinton projected a sufficiently strong sense of purpose and direction to curb the chatter that he is dragging his feet out there in Little Rock.