Clinton embarks on a more cautious, conventional second term


WASHINGTON -- What a difference four years make, at least to President Clinton, given a second chance by the voters in November to make a new start in the Oval Office.

With his Cabinet in place well before his second inauguration two weeks from now, the president is not as he was four years ago already tied in knots by withdrawn appointments and frantic searches for Band-aid replacements.

Also, he is talking bipartisan cooperation with the Republican Party on a modest agenda, not as four years ago, when he sent out signals of a "first 100 days" of moderately liberal accomplishment to match or exceed the fabled opening rush of Democratic liberal icon Franklin D. Roosevelt.

And he is heading into his second term with a more conventional attitude about how things get done. Just as he did early in his first term, he is assembling members of his cabinet and senior White House staff next weekend for a retreat at Camp David, but without the touchy-feely aspect that marked his 1993 retreat.

Then, he invited professional conference "facilitators" who specialized in helping folks, as they say these days, get in touch with their feelings, and he joined other participants in recounting personal incidents and adventures for the edification or amusement of all. Not, apparently, this time around.

What all this indicates is that President Clinton's first term, especially its dismal beginning, was a learning experience well taken to heart. While the assembling of his second-term cabinet and White House team was not exactly a textbook example of tidiness, what with some last-minute musical chairs, it has not yet thrown a monkey wrench into a smooth start, as it did in 1993.

Nor have there been any bonehead political moves of the dimensions of the new president's decision to open a gays-in-the-military can of worms when there was little public demand for a new policy. It can be reasonably argued that in choosing that issue as his first notable agenda item four years ago, Mr. Clinton gave himself a political charley horse.

Mr. Clinton's first-term beginning suffered as does that of most new presidents from an excess of zest and a belief that the wheel can be reinvented by someone taking a fresh look at it. By contrast, presidents who essentially are caretakers of previous White House occupants, such as George Bush after Ronald Reagan, usually don't even try.

Mr. Clinton's biggest first-term miscalculation was his decision to try to reform the nation's health care system with one gigantic bite.

Political demagogy

It didn't matter that Mr. Clinton's opponents demagogued on the threat (just as he and the Democrats did last fall on Republican proposals to reform Medicare and Medicaid); they bloodied him politically in ways that soured much of his first term.

Mr. Clinton subsequently trimmed his sails in this fight and others. While it can be argued that his presidency lost some of its earlier-stated purpose in the process, the trimming deprived his foes of their liberal target, making it easier for Mr. Clinton to win re-election in the middle-road America of 1996.

All this might augur a dull second term, if not for the investigations of pre-presidential personal conduct and re-election campaign fund-raising practices that hang over Mr. Clinton.

The sweet reasonableness that he has been requesting for his aspirations for the next four years is not likely to be realized on Capitol Hill, especially with Republicans convinced that the Democrats are hell-bent on destroying the influence of House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 1/10/97

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