WASHINGTON — On a chilly day both solemn and upbeat, President Clinton stressed racial unity as he marked the beginning of his second term of office.
Yesterday's swearing in ceremony, the highlight of America's 53rd presidential inaugural, coincided with the official celebration of the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Clinton sought to elevate his rhetoric above the merely political.
But the theme of harmony applied equally to the political as well as the racial, as he called for a spirit of bipartisanship with the Republican Congress as they face together the challenges of the next century. The projected insolvency of Medicare and Social Security will top the list of issues.
"Today we can declare government is not the problem; government is not the solution," he said, paraphrasing both conservative and liberal lines on the role Washington should play.
The president promised a "new government for a new century," humble enough not to try to solve all Americans' problems, but strong enough to provide tools to let citizens solve them for themselves.
President Clinton begins his second term with the highest approval ratings of his presidency to date. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 60 percent of those surveyed approved of the way Clinton is handling his job as president, with 34 percent disapproving. Fifty-six percent said they thought Clinton would do a better job as president in the second term than in the first.
Bounce in the polls
Presidents who win reelection typically begin their second terms with a bounce in the polls. In January 1957, President Eisenhower enjoyed a 73 percent approval rating, according to a Gallup poll. In January 1985, President Reagan's approval rating was at 62 percent, according to Gallup.
Clinton's high approval numbers may be a reflection of short-term circumstances, notes presidential scholar James Pfiffner of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
The economy is doing well, there are no foreign crises, and the ethical spotlight is, for the moment, trained on House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Soon, Clinton will face the klieg lights again, this time on Democratic fund-raising practices.
In the runup to Inauguration Day, Clinton has sought to spell out his hopes for a second term. In an interview with The Washington Post, he expressed a hope that he would play a historical role on a par with Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, both of whom served as president at the turn of a century, when the role of government was in flux.
"I think we've found a synthesis" between big government and no government, Clinton told the Post. "I think we'll fight about it in this session of Congress, but it's basically been resolved to the satisfaction of the American people," he said.
There are some areas where government should do less, and some where it should do more, he said, listing education, the environment, public health, expanding access to health care, and reducing crime.
Unity was a theme throughout his inaugural speech. "Our rich texture of racial, religious, and political diversity will be a Godsend in the 21st century," he said.
Racism is America's "constant curse," he added, and immigrants are "constant targets to old persecutions."
"We cannot - we will not - succumb to the dark impulses that lurk in the far regions of the soul, everywhere," he said.
Call for new civility
Clinton promised to heed the desire of voters for civility in Washington. "They call on us ... to repair the breach, and to move on with America's eternal mission," he said.
Echoing Clinton's plea for reconciliation along racial and ethnic lines, Arkansas poet Miller Williams wrote a verse for the occasion:
"Who were many people coming together cannot become one people falling apart."
Leading up to the speech, the president was stressing the need for restoring trust in Washington.
"We must restore faith in government," President Clinton wrote in the Washington Times yesterday.
"Our government must be a partner in our common endeavor to provide citizens, families, and communities with the tools they need to succeed."
For thousands of visitors to the capital, Inauguration Day was a moment of celebration - or at least a chance to witness history.
"It's a thrill of a lifetime, probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing," says Jean Leboff, who had just arrived from Pennsylvania.
* This story was supplemented by wire service reports.
* 'It is our great good fortune that time and chance have put us not only on the edge of a new century, in a new millennium, but on the edge of a bright new prospect in human affairs. A moment that will define our course, and our character for decades to come.'
*'We began the 19th century with a choice to spread our nation from coast to coast. We began the 20th century, with a choice to harness the industrial revolution to our values of free enterprise, conservation, and human decency. Those choices made all the difference.'
*'Today we can declare: Government is not the problem and government is not the solution. We, the American people, we are the solution. '
* 'We need a new government for a new century, a government humble enough not to try to solve all our problems for us, but strong enough to give us the tools to solve our problems for ourselves.'