WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, who won office talking intensely about policy details, now says that in his first two years he failed to talk enough about "the big picture" of these tempestuous times.
As he gears up for his re-election campaign, he says that anxious Americans may feel "like they're lost in the fun house" and that it is his job to "get people out of their funk about it."
Returning late Friday night from a weeklong fund-raising and political trip around the nation, Mr. Clinton made it clear in a discursive 45-minute conversation with reporters aboard Air Force One that he was long since out of his own funk about last fall's Republican electoral victory.
Now, he said, it is his responsibility to help lead people through the "tumult and upheaval" of the information-saturated 1990s.
"I'm also trying to get people out of their funk about it," he said.
"My own belief is that human beings -- particularly the American people -- are capable of enduring a lot of difficulty and a lot of tumult and upheaval if they understand it.
"What makes people insecure is when they feel like they're lost in the fun house," he said.
"They're in a room where something can hit them from any direction at any time, they always feel that living life is like walking across a running river on slippery rocks and you can lose your footing at any time."
Energized by a swing that took him to nine cities in four states in five days, he confessed that even in a radio interview with Larry King in Los Angeles on Thursday, he had to fight his tendency to go into too much detail about policy questions.
"I loved doing it, but I found myself about three questions in and said, 'No, no, no, no, I'm doing too much of the, you know, details of the specific issue they're asking without trying to keep putting it into larger contexts,' " Mr. Clinton said in the Air Force One interview -- just minutes after finishing a lengthy detailed discussion of education policy.
In his months of contemplation and reading, the president has found a new friend: history.
Sounding a theme he tried out repeatedly on a trip earlier this month, he says he now believes the nation is going through its most profound period of social, economic and technological change in a century, since the dawn of the Progressive Era; that real wages are stagnant even as the economy grows; that government still has an important role to play in targeting investment in education; and that it is the president's job to explain all that to a restless public skeptical of politicians and power.
"I think in the first two years, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I was obsessed with doing it -- much of it requiring the Congress to go along," Mr. Clinton said in apparent reference to his health care plan and ambitious legislative agenda.
"And I would have been better served, I think, and the country probably would have been better served, if maybe we'd done, even if we'd done just slightly less, if people had understood some of the big picture more.
"And the president has to impart that big picture," he added.
"If you go back and look at Lincoln's speeches, for example, he was always explaining the time people were living in and putting the big issues in terms of choices that had to be made, so that he basically never let the people off the hook."