WASHINGTON -- It was only a month ago that President Clinton went to the East Room to face the music. The night before, the Democrats had lost both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Victorious Republicans, losing Democratic candidates and exit polls all told the same story: As much as anything, the election had been a referendum on Bill Clinton.
"We were held accountable yesterday," a somber Mr. Clinton told the nation.
The president pledged not to veer away from his economic program, which he credited for the sustained economic recovery. But he vowed that he had heard the voters' cry for a less intrusive federal government.
Four weeks later, it is also becoming clear that Mr. Clinton and his advisers believe that most Americans have concluded that this president, his wife and his administration are more liberal than they are.
To counter that perception, Mr. Clinton and his advisers have decided to move right on the political spectrum -- or at least cultivate the appearance of moving to the right. The upshot has been a spate of decisions from proposing an increase in $H Pentagon spending to the firing of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.
Moderate Democrats say that these actions show the president is responsive to the electorate. But these moves also rekindle a ++ question that has plagued Mr. Clinton as long as he's been in politics: Does he have deeply held political convictions, and, if so, what are they?
Each time he has made one of his recent centrist decisions, administration officials have insisted that those decisions were made on their merits. But they have not disputed the larger point -- that the president is repositioning himself.
On Friday, for instance, Leon E. Panetta, the White House chief of staff, was pressed about why Dr. Elders was fired for saying that schools should teach masturbation as part of sex education -- given that some schools already do so. Mr. Panetta conceded that one factor in the decision to fire her was the president's desire to tell the American people that he "shares their values."
"We don't feel that what she said was so shocking -- particularly in this time of great danger to young people," Dr. Mathilde Krim, a well-known Democratic contributor and chairwoman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, said in an interview yesterday.
But even when Mr. Clinton is resisting Republican proposals, he's laboring to position himself in the middle of the debate.
Yesterday, while challenging incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich's call for orphanages as a last resort for the children of welfare recipients who won't work, Mr. Clinton didn't use liberal arguments; he didn't attack orphanages as Dickensian houses of horror. He took a conservative tack. Orphanages, the president suggested, are bad because they are another big government program.
"Governments don't raise children; parents do," Mr. Clinton said.
In doing so, he borrowed -- without attribution -- a favorite line of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group that opposes nearly all of his policies.
"There are some people out there who argue that we should let some sort of big new institution take parents' place . . . and put the children in orphanages," the president said. "Well, those people are dead wrong. We need less governmental interference in family life, not more."
The first sign that Mr. Clinton was going to try to reinvent not just the federal bureaucracy, but himself, too, came a few days after the election. In Indonesia for an Asian economic summit, the president told reporters that he would be receptive to a Republican-sponsored constitutional amendment to allow prayer in public schools, a suggestion that appalled liberals.
Mr. Clinton subsequently backed away from that suggestion, but worried liberals wondered what was next. They soon found out. The administration shied away from taking a gays-in-the-military case to the Supreme Court, floated the idea of cutting government agencies that serve the poor and assured big-state governors -- most of whom are Republican -- that they would have a say-so in welfare reform.
"I just don't understand why he's supposed to move one way -- I think his advisers are asses," said Nancy Smith, a prominent New York women's magazine editor who was an ardent 1992 supporter of Mr. Clinton. "Is Jesse Helms going to move closer to the center, too?"
In some instances, it appeared that the administration was milking some of these decisions to seem more conservative than they are. In the case of gay sailor Keith Meinhold, for instance, the administration's retreat appears to be a strategic legal tactic. He is still in the Navy, and Justice Department lawyers didn't want to risk disturbing a favorable appeals court ruling.
Likewise, a request by Mr. Clinton for a $27 billion increase in Pentagon spending was spread over six years -- the usual span in Washington is four or five years -- in what appeared to be an attempt to make it sound like a bigger increase.
Yet, on budget matters, the administration is pursuing some of ++ the very budget cuts it fought last year. It also seems clear that the White House was simply waiting for a reason to fire Dr. Elders. Her remarks about masturbation, while inelegant, were hardly revolutionary in the context of sex education.
Even political observers who applaud the administration's new direction, however, believe that Mr. Clinton has a larger problem that might be magnified by his recent move to the center.
That problem is the perception that, at his core, Mr. Clinton himself isn't sure what he stands for.
"Does what we've seen in the last week reflect where Bill Clinton really wants to move?" asks Kenneth Duberstein, a Republican activist. "No one knows. This administration moves this way and that way, without a true compass."
Mr. Duberstein contrasts Mr. Clinton with former President Ronald Reagan, for whom he served as White House chief of staff.
"Consistency, true beliefs, firm principles," he said. "These are the hallmarks of Reagan. Whether you agreed with him or not, you always knew where he stood. So far, at least, this has not been true of Bill Clinton."
David R. Gergen, a friend of Mr. Duberstein who served in the Reagan White House -- and then joined the Clinton White House -- made a similar point recently. He told a group of journalists that Mr. Clinton hasn't done an adequate job of explaining who he is to the American people.
Yesterday, in a brief interview outside the White House, a member of the president's communications staff made the same point. "He's got to figure out what he really believes in," the aide said.
MOVING TO THE RIGHT
* Nov. 28. The Justice Department announces that it will not appeal to the Supreme Court the case of a gay sailor challenging the military's restrictions on homosexuals.
* Dec. 1. The president, flanked by the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
announces that he is seeking $27 billion in additional Pentagon spending.
* Dec. 2. Overruling a scientific advisory panel, the president decides not to allow federal funds to be used to finance research on human embryos created in laboratories.
* Dec. 8. The president tells visiting governors that he will consider handing responsibility for welfare back to the states -- a retreat from his $9 billion welfare reform package introduced last June. "Washington doesn't have all the answers," he says.
* Dec. 9. News accounts reveal that Mr. Clinton's aides are considering recommending abolishing the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that houses millions of the nation's poor.
* Dec. 9. The president fires controversial Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.