WASHINGTON — STRIVING to establish his political voice, President Clinton is demonstrating the competing impulses of a man who wants both to cooperate with his political rivals yet set distinctions.
The hope, say Democratic strategists, is that Clinton will appear a man of common sense who appeals to middle America - more liberal than congressional Republicans and more conservative than many fellow Democrats.
On the budget, the White House has veered away from its conciliatory mood and is now warning it's on a ''collision course'' with congressional Republicans over key spending bills.
On affirmative action, the president appears headed toward an announcement next week that will neither fully embrace nor reject past practices.
Yesterday, Clinton met religious conservatives part way over the school-prayer issue, announcing new guidelines to clarify which forms of religious expression are permissible.
And on the historic decision to establish ties with Vietnam, Clinton won the high-profile support of a conservative Republican senator, former Vietnam prisoner-of-war John McCain of Arizona, while Republican presidential contenders carped from the sidelines.
''It's not so much a search for the center; he's trying to carve out a more presidential role for himself, to use the bully pulpit to identify national problems and have a moderating influence,'' says Charles Jones, a scholar at the Brookings Institution.
''On Vietnam, he came out with a healing message,'' Mr. Jones adds. ''As with Oklahoma, he's good at that.''
Key Democratic constituency
At times, Clinton seems to have almost as much trouble with congressional Democrats as with his GOP rivals. The president's meeting Tuesday with the Congressional Black Caucus - the first since Congress went Republican - focused on the group's concerns over affirmative action and budget cuts. The meeting highlighted the president's need to keep a key Democratic constituency with him as he prepares for reelection.
But the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who is openly considering running for president, implies that even if Clinton comes down in favor of affirmative action in a speech slated for July 19, the damage has already been done: The White House's lengthy review of government programs that factor in race and sex has encouraged opponents of affirmative action, he has said.
Facing a range of sticky issues, the White House is pursuing two related courses, says a Democratic strategist. One is called ''triangulation,'' with the three points on the triangle being congressional Republicans, congressional Democrats, and the president. ''Sometimes he aligns himself with one, sometimes with the other, and sometimes he's all alone against Congress,'' the strategist says. ''It helps voters figure out where the president is.''
The related strategy is the so-called ''move to the center,'' marked most sharply by his proposal last month for his own version of a balanced budget. Many Democrats cried with exasperation that Clinton was giving up on an approach against the Republicans that was hitting pay dirt, especially over the charge that Republicans were planning deep cuts in the Medicare program.
''It was a mistake to give up on Medicare,'' says the Democratic strategist. ''In June, for the first time since the elections [last November], the public disapproved of the Republicans overall plans.''
But on Tuesday, White House chief of staff Leon Panetta rejected all 13 spending bills before the House Appropriations Committee, promising vetoes for all if they stood as is. The proposals would end Clinton's national service program and the Goals 2000 education program, and force deep cuts in spending on housing, environmental protection, and job training. The threatened veto raises the specter of a federal government shutdown Oct. 1.
In part, the president's competing impulses are a reflection of those felt by the public, says Democratic consultant Mark Melman. ''People think partisan politics are abhorrent, and they want an end to it,'' he says. But they also want elections with clear choices, he says, and it is only out of conflict that distinctions become apparent.
Overall, Jones says, the president is trying to make the public feel that ''things are OK.'' ''Voters do respond favorably to incumbents - both in Congress and the White House - when they judge that things are going OK.''
Though it may be too early for predictions, Jones notes that the last three presidents to be reelected (1984, 1972, 1956) all won when their party (GOP) was the minority in Congress and at a time when there was general good feeling about the economy and political bipartisanship. ''What Clinton really wants to avoid is a repeat of 1992, when Bush was vetoing everything'' and failed to be reelected, Jones says.