The 42nd President

GIVEN the task Bill Clinton has laid out for himself - unifying America while at the same time reforming it - it would be surprising if he did not have the somewhat rocky transition period for which he has been sternly condemned of late.

Clinton's appointment process has been criticized. He has had to reassess some campaign promises. And with cruise missiles slamming into Iraq, there are worries about a new president facing a foreign-policy quagmire.

Still, it is too early to jump on a Bill-bashing bandwagon, as some pundits have. As pressing as foreign and domestic problems are, Mr. Clinton deserves a decent interval to gather his forces. For his sake, and for America's, he deserves at least a short honeymoon to reshape and redirect the channels of power and influence in Washington - which both parties have clogged often to the point of stupefaction.

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Clinton was elected in an unusual year. The cry by angry citizens voting in record numbers was for change. Real change will not come automatically; it is not a matter of simply shifting office space in the executive branch. After 12 years of government shaped by the GOP, forging a new direction will require patience and, as Clinton says, the courage "to make some mistakes."

Nor can the American public ignore the deeper currents running underneath this inaugural. Clinton's administration represents something of a crossroads in history. He and Vice President Gore represent a new postwar generation of leadership in America - the first baby boomers to take the highest office. They take over at the end of a cold war and the beginning of a period of global politics that is largely undefined and lacking stability.

Moreover, Clinton inherits at home the first undivided government in what is a post "Great Society" period. Many of the domestic reforms of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, shaped by ideologues, were politically unrealistic. Both blamed Congress for their failure.

A Democratic president, however, cannot use this tactic. It will fall to the former governor of Arkansas to reform health care. He must oversee welfare reform. He must decide how to cut entitlements, especially medical costs. He must lead an assault on the deficit and decide how to shape middle-class tax relief. He must help convert defense spending into the domestic sphere to make America more competitive. The wounds of racism and sexism must be healed. Trust in government must be restored.

These challenges rise out of deep social and economic processes in America. Clinton deserves some breathing space to begin meeting them.

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