WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON takes his oath tomorrow as the first Democratic president ever elected to a lame-duck second term. As such, he will be the first intended target of the 22nd amendment passed 46 years ago by Republicans seeking revenge on Franklin D. Roosevelt. The amendment's unintended victims -- Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan -- were Republicans who felt its sting in second terms ranging from lackluster (Eisenhower and Reagan) to disaster (Nixon).
How will a Congress controlled by Republicans, who know Mr. Clinton's "four more years" will be his last four years, react to this constitutionally mandated weakness in the presidency?
In ordinary times, the president's opponents would be focused on reshaping his agenda to conform with their own. But Bill Clinton is not only a consummate politician. He is a resilient politician, as witness his career of comebacks, and a lucky politician, as the current fracas over Speaker Newt Gingrich serves to offset his own nest of scandal.
Inauguration Day finds the nation's capital eerily like the place Mr. Clinton described in his first inaugural address: "a place of intrigue and calculation [as] powerful people maneuver for position." Only this time he is not the rube from Arkansas arriving in Sodom on the Potomac. He is one of those "powerful people" maneuvering to save himself from personal humiliation as Mr. Gingrich does the same.
The Washington Establishment, Mr. Clinton complained four years ago, forgets those "whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way." Were ordinary Americans forgotten during the first Clinton term? The White House would vigorously deny it, citing both its failures (rejection of sweeping health care reform and stimulus spending) and its successes (sharp reduction in the annual deficit, a vibrant economy and passage of harsh welfare reform).
But tomorrow is not a day to look back. Historians have eternity for that chore. The nation will want to know what is in store and how their president articulates it. No longer can Mr. Clinton indulge himself in flailing his predecessors, with campaign-like hyperbole, for "an era of deadlock and drift." His own record is already half over, chronologically, and he enters his second term, as he did his last, with a plurality rather than a majority mandate.
In his post-election ruminations, he said his big early mistakes were to overestimate the amount of popular backing for health care reform and to underestimate the virulence of his political enemies. His response has been to position himself in the ideological "vital center" where he joyfully co-opts such hoary Republican issues as a balanced budget, crime, drugs, downsizing government and even family values. All this is good politics, but it suggests a domestic agenda so lacking in boldness it leaves liberals sputtering. The impression exists he is no longer thinking big even though he has publicly yearned for greatness.
Like many presidents before him, Mr. Clinton finds himself irresistibly drawn to foreign affairs. Not only do events abroad -- Boris Yeltsin's illness, China's unruliness, Bosnia's feuds, Middle East orneriness, massive trade deficits -- claim his attention. He is finding that foreign policy is an area in which he has more control, even in a tumultuous world, than he does in the snake pit of a Republican-led Congress.
Bill Clinton said in his first inaugural that the nation's greatest strength "is in the power of our ideas." That should be his personal credo as well. As he speaks to America and the world tomorrow, the power of his ideas should be the standard against which his second inaugural should be judged. How he implements these ideas will be the story of his second presidency.
Pub Date: 1/19/97