The Real Bottom Line

THE economy. The economy. The economy.

Having been elected on themes of change and growth, President-elect Clinton enters the transition process focused on the economy. Last week Mr. Clinton announced he would create an Economic Strategy Council and hold a conference of business and financial leaders from around the country.

Arguing that Americans have not been told how "grim" the nation's economic picture is, Clinton will use this conference next month as a "national audit" to look unsparingly at this picture and lower expectations for instant fiscal miracles.

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These initiatives have promise. The Economic Strategy Council, which may rival the National Security Council in influence, could be the first post-cold-war White House structure. In a global market, economics are as important to security as defense. When Britain pulled out of the Common Market monetary system this fall, President Bush was briefed by NSC chief Gen. Brent Scowcroft, whose area is not economics.

Clinton needs an economic head start. Prior to his presumed 100-day honeymoon in office, beginning Jan. 20, he will likely unveil a modified industrial policy: $30 billion redirected from military to civilian high-tech research, infrastructure investment, job training, and tax incentives. Clinton will get much economic bottom-line advice; "fixing America" could become synonymous with "fixing the economy."

Yet many Americans know, as Clinton seems to, that the problems with America are not solely economic. They have as much to do with the spirit and character of the country as with its bankbook and spending habits. We hope the new president, while attempting to remake US economic capacity, does not slip into defining America as mainly an economic idea.

The American democratic experiment, checking the excesses of power and prejudice through civic virtue, must not be overlooked. Clinton held down the McGovern wing of his party and made his election a referendum on middle-class hopes. But those forgotten in the campaign - the poor, minorities, the helpless - must be included too.

America's civic infrastructure needs rebuilding as much as its economic infrastructure. Particularly after the cold war, without the discipline of a Soviet threat to guide priorities, it is time to talk again of the importance of good government. For too long government has been described as "the problem." Yet license, scandals, and deficits in the 1980s show that government is not improved by attacking or undermining it.

Civic spirit requires trust in government. Scholar Daniel Bell argues that Americans have been lied to by so many presidents over the past 30 years that distrust seems normal. That it seems farfetched to trust our leaders shows how awry matters are.

It was heartening, then, to hear Warren Christopher, a Clinton transition leader, describe ethics requirements for the transition team as the toughest ever. The ethics emphasis should extend into the new administration, with officials prohibited from lobbying their old departments for five years after leaving office.

Now comes the hard part. The country needs vision. Even a booming economy would not by itself indicate real vision.

Clinton may be a good president if he rebuilds the economy. He could be a great one if he inspires Americans to demand a trustworthy government.

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