The Clock Is Running on Clinton

IT is probably in bad taste to ask this question of an incoming president who is rightly enjoying his ascent to the seat of power. But well before the normal beginning of a new chief executive's honeymoon, the query, rude though it may sound, is popping up: "How much time does Clinton have to get his job done?"

The president-elect knows that he must quickly seize the moment and deliver. He said he would provide jobs and growth. He can't go back on those promises, since they were the lure that brought so many voters to his side.

Will there be tax incentives for investment in small businesses? Will there be an expanded Jobs Corps for the unemployed poor? Will he find money somewhere to help the states and localities with their problems - drugs, crime, and the need to rebuild the infrastructure?

What will Mr. Clinton do about the massive federal deficit? Will balancing the budget be even thinkable as he seeks to put what he calls "investment" programs into place?

And will an improving economy, which now is showing some signs of coming about, help Clinton to achieve his goals, or will it render some of his program unnecessary?

Also, will Clinton become so tied up in pushing his economic program that he will fail to deal with what is arguably his biggest problem: the churning and upheaval that is going on in what was the Soviet Union? That, too, is a "domestic" problem, in terms of what inattention to it could cost the United States.

Ambassador Robert Strauss says time is short if the US is to make sure that Boris Yeltsin receives the aid he needs to keep reform moving ahead. And he points out that, should the hard-liners take over again, the new administration in Washington would wake up to a hard and ugly fact: That there would have to be a restoration of prospective cuts in defense spending and, therefore, many billions less for domestic use.

In talking to the Monitor's breakfast group soon after returning from his stint as US ambassador to Russia, Mr. Strauss emphasized that the "next few months" were critical to the continuation of reform.

He doesn't think that the "clock could ever be turned back" on democracy. He feels the Russian people favor it even though they complain constantly about the way it is affecting them. But he does see the possibility of "some demagogue out there some place" who might take over the government if the US doesn't make sure that reform remains on track.

Even should there be such a takeover, Strauss doesn't see a return to the old days of dictatorial government in Russia. But he obviously was warning that suspicion and confrontation - enough to force us to keep our defenses beefed up - might return to US-Russia relations if the new president and new Congress don't concentrate on assisting the Yeltsin government.

Back to the usual definition of domestic matters, Clinton will have to answer to just about everyone, and quickly. Middle-income people are expecting a tax cut. Businesses are looking for breaks. Workers everywhere are anticipating better days. And the general public has been led to believe that education and the environment will be improved and that drugs and crime will be dealt with more effectively. Oh yes, affordable health care for everyone is also on the horizon.

Many in the black community, for example, will be looking over Clinton's shoulders and expecting help. The morning after the Strauss breakfast, the Rev. Jesse Jackson met with reporters and spent much of the hour talking about how African-Americans turned out in record numbers to vote for Clinton and could therefore lay claim to special attention from the newly elected president.

Mr. Clinton is keenly aware of the support of black Americans - and their expectations. On a visit to Washington, he toured a black business area, sprinkling hope and goodwill as he talked to proprietors and passersby. That was enough for blacks for that day, and more than recent presidents have done.

Clinton has, indeed, brought hope to the American people. That's good. He can build on that. Now we will wait and see what he can build. He won't be given too much time.

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