WASHINGTON -- The disaster in Oklahoma City confronts politicians with the kind of situation they most abhor. They must deliver. Talk won't be enough.
There is, of course, a place for talk. There was an obligation on President Clinton to express the national outrage and revulsion, and he fulfilled it. "I will not allow the people of this country to be intimidated," the president said. "Let there be no room for doubt. We will find the people who did this. When we do, justice will be swift, certain and severe."
Those words alone put the president under a heavy obligation not only to find and punish the perpetrators of the outrage against human decency but to give some reassurance to Americans, who have always believed this kind of thing couldn't happen at home.
Clinton is facing a difficult assignment in providing such a comfort level for the nation. Opinion polls consistently show he -- has not built the kind of standing as a national leader that would make his words automatically reassuring. He is not a Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan, whose personae alone might be enough to do the trick.
But it is also true that Americans will follow his performance with an open mind. It should not be forgotten that President John F. Kennedy had not persuaded much of the country of his personal strength until he dealt with the Cuban missile crisis with authority in the fall of 1962.
For this president, the context is much less hospitable. For several years now there has been a steady rise in the concern among Americans about their personal safety. Much of it relates, of course, to street crime, but there is also evidence in the opinion studies that Americans feel insecure in many ways not easily defined. The evidence is strong, for example, in polls that find most voters feel the country is "off on the wrong track," even when the economy is healthy.
Clinton, moreover, must conduct himself and the government in a way that does not lose sight of peculiarly American values. If the villains in this catastrophe are found to have had some sponsorship from a foreign power, the president will be under pressure to gain a measure of revenge with military action such as that Reagan took against Libya a decade ago.
But, as in case with the World Trade Center bombing two years ago, it may well turn out that such a clear connection between the terrorists and some other state is impossible to establish. In that case, Clinton will have to make the kind of hard decisions that inevitably will affect the way he is viewed by voters.
In the long term, the most important imperative for the president and the government is to demonstrate that terrorism is not going to to become a part of our culture.
It should not be forgotten that before Nov. 22, 1963, the threat of assassination of our national leaders was never a real concern. Now we have government buildings surrounded by concrete barriers, and our presidents and other leaders enveloped in cocoons of protection.
The first question for Clinton is what steps can be taken to locate and deal with terrorists before they act. The demands for crackdowns on illegal aliens inside the United States already are being heard, but it is not a simple matter in a country with borders as vast as ours..
The president can expect, however, to be helped by the #F predilection of Americans to rally around their leaders in cases of national or international peril.
That pattern was obvious, for instance, when President Jimmy Carter was confronted with the taking of the hostages in Tehran in 1979. Although a certain amount of criticism is probably inevitable, Clinton can count on getting the benefit of the doubt if he follows through forcefully on his promise to act.
There are, however, limits on the national patience, as Carter discovered when the rescue operation failed in the spring of 1980.
So the most important thing for Clinton in the short term is to show that his administration is capable of effectively dealing with the Oklahoma City incident. Millions of frightened Americans will be watching closely.