BILL CLINTON won't take office for a month yet, and the story of his presidency is, of course, entirely unwritten. But his dozen years as governor of Arkansas, his year in the national spotlight as a presidential candidate, and now his first steps in preparing for his new administration give us many clues concerning the course he's likely to follow.
One thing can be said with certainty about his prospects: They are not reduced by the fact that he won with only 43 percent of the popular vote, the smallest proportion since Woodrow Wilson took office with 42 percent in 1912. Mr. Clinton's standing will be determined by how Americans see him performing as president, and most Americans genuinely want him to do well.
Still, his experience in a year of all-out campaigning points to one area of concern about his prospects. At no point did he succeed in dispelling widespread doubts about his suitability, in certain personal regards, for the office. For example, the big election-day poll taken by Voter Research and Surveys (VRS) asked voters: "If Bill Clinton wins today, what best describes your feelings about what he will do as president?" Only 41 percent picked one of the two positive assessments: Fifteen percent said they would be "excited," 26 percent "optimistic." Against that 41 percent, 57 percent said they would be "concerned" (27 percent) or "scared" (30 percent). Seventy-eight percent of Ross Perot's backers said a Clinton victory would leave them concerned or scared; 17 percent of Clinton's own supporters felt that way.
I'm not arguing that Bill Clinton takes office with a dark cloud hanging over him. The concern, rather, is that the same things that raised doubts about him among many voters during the campaign will continue to trouble his presidency. Poll data makes evident that it wasn't things he did, or allegedly did, in the past that caused Clinton to have a "character" problem so much as how he responded. For example, it wasn't what he did with regard to the draft in the 1960s, but rather that, when the issue aros e during the campaign, he failed to deal with it forthrightly.
Americans are somewhat down on their political leadership these days. Part of Mr. Perot's appeal was that he seemed different from "regular politicians" in the sense that he seemed much less inclined to dissemble. Clinton's presidency will suffer if he gives the public reason to doubt that, within reason, he says what he means and means what he says.
George Bush never really liked the politics and campaigning side of the presidency. For Clinton, though, politics is a passion, and for him the campaign will never end. One sees this in the two-day "economic summit" he convened in Little Rock earlier this week. The conference wasn't a means for getting economic advice, but rather a carefully scripted effort to generate public support for the approach Clinton had already decided upon.
A Clinton administration won't stray very far from the general course the president believes the country wants to follow. For a decade, Clinton has been calling for a "new" Democratic Party. He means a party that does a better job keeping in touch with the values and aspirations of the country's broad middle class. Thus, Clinton has often stressed individuals' responsibility for things, rather than placing a more unbroken emphasis on government's responsibility. His positions in favor of a strong nationa l defense and a vigorous United States foreign policy, and his general inclination to celebrate the American idea rather than concentrate on deficiencies within it, also serve to separate him from stands that have plagued his party over the last quarter-century.
The Clinton presidency will seek to find and hold the political center. His first round of major appointments, especially those in the area of economic policy, clearly reflect this determined centrism. Clinton is taking office just as the economy is poised for more robust growth.
Finally, the US is less threatened and challenged on the world stage than at any previous point in the modern era. The tide has been moving strongly in directions the US favors, and Clinton will have enormous resources to see that it continues to do so.