Campaign Promises Dog Clinton's First Days

WEEKS before President Clinton took office, columnist Dave Barry gave a speech entitled: "How the Clinton Presidency Failed." It was all in fun, but now the president faces critics who are not joking.

Mr. Clinton showered voters with promises during the campaign. He would slash the budget deficit in half, improve the plight of Haitian refugees, cut taxes on the middle class, and more.

Now some keen supporters see him back-pedaling faster than an Arkansas crawfish, political analyst Horace Busby says.

This has the media up in arms. Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar, says Clinton "goes into office with the shortest honeymoon in history in terms of press relations."

Clinton's defenders reject such comments. Rep. Philip Sharp (D) of Indiana says: "I think that's a lot of inside-the-Beltway criticism by a lot of people who have to be talking constantly and writing constantly."

Polls show Mr. Sharp may be right. The public's expectations remain high. The newest ABC/Washington Post poll finds that 64 percent of United States residents surveyed believe Clinton will try to keep major promises. The survey was conducted Jan. 14-17 among 1,510 adults.

Yet Clinton has raised some hackles among key voter groups. On Haiti, taxes, the deficit, and his vow to have an economic plan ready "the day after I'm inaugurated," the president has pulled away from his campaign rhetoric.

Burton Pines, a Heritage Foundation conservative, says: "Every day seems to be a new statement of one more campaign promise that is being postponed or reinterpreted or broken." Critics cite concerns

Clinton's troubles focus on three fronts:

* The budget. Shortly after his election, Clinton learned that estimates for the federal deficit were much higher than had earlier been reported. Chances for cutting taxes for the middle class went "poof," but so did one principal campaign theme.

* Haitians. Reports from Haiti indicate that tens of thousands of "boat people" were ready to sail to Florida the day Clinton took office. Worried about dangers they would face during their voyage, and also about political backlash in hurricane-damaged southern Florida, where most Haitians would go, Clinton reversed himself. He approved stronger efforts by the US Coast Guard and Navy to send them back.

* Appointments. Clinton was so slow in making appointments to sub-Cabinet jobs that some experts worried about government effectiveness. Richard Cheney, the Bush administration defense secretary, said in the Pentagon, in particular, "it's very important to try to have some continuity."

Clinton rejected this argument. He said: "I think it would be irresponsible for any president ... not to respond to changing circumstances." Vice President Al Gore Jr. has agreed.

A survey of 1,179 adults conducted Jan. 12-14 by the New York Times and CBS News indicates that US citizens may already be adjusting to new circumstances referred to by Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton.

Just 26 percent of those surveyed believe Clinton will significantly reduce the budget deficit. Only 24 percent say he will provide a middle-class tax cut. High expectations remain

But US residents still have high expectations on other fronts. Some 66 percent of those surveyed expect Clinton to make significant progress in providing health insurance. Some 37 million people still have none. About 64 percent expect improvements in education. Large numbers - 51 percent and 54 percent, respectively - also expect the new president to improve the environment and crack down on government appointees who profit financially because of their connections.

Mr. Hess worries, however, that the griping among news reporters about Clinton could soon grow into a public chorus of complaint.

Mr. Busby, who worked in the Johnson White House, said during the campaign that Clinton was throwing around "a kind of loose campaign talk ... that was not connected up with reality."

He says too many politicians are "playing a lot of games with the American people. So that, sooner or later, the games will cause the American people to question both parties as to their trustworthiness, their reliability, even their relevance."

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