How Long a Honeymoon for Clinton?

AMERICAN voters fight bitterly and endlessly among themselves during a presidential contest. And after all the strife and name-calling of the campaign, the people accept the election verdict and fall in line behind their new leader.

It's not quite that neat and tidy. But it does happen pretty much that way every four years. Now Bill Clinton is the beneficiary of this almost magical transformation in public attitudes.

The voters don't really cast off their criticisms, they just temporarily bury the hatchet. People realize that no matter how they voted, the person now in the White House is their president. For their lives to get better this new leader must do well.

So, at bottom, self-interest brings us all together. For how long? That's always the question.

Mr. Clinton was able to draw only 43 percent of the vote, so it is easy to argue that a strong majority of Americans voted for someone else and probably still hold reservations about the incoming president. As was shown during the primaries last spring, the public can harbor a lot of latent animosity toward a man whose actions in private life drew widespread criticism.

It would seem, therefore, that the public truce with Clinton could be short - that if he doesn't quickly show strong leadership and an ability to move the country forward, the honeymoon is likely to end early.

But something has happened to Clinton since the election. Perhaps I'm reading the wrong papers or viewing the wrong TV programs, but it seems to me that a lot of people who had little faith in this fellow from Arkansas, who came out of nowhere to gain the presidency, are taking a new look at him and rather liking what they see.

Many of them are beginning to believe that Hillary Clinton just might work out quite well as first lady, too. They doubt if she will play that role in the traditional way. But they are beginning to see that she could well be an intelligent and helpful partner to her spouse, without becoming something the Constitution does not permit: a co-president.

Clinton's playboy image has faded. It began during the campaign as his brushed-high hair became shorter, closer cropped. The debates revealed a very serious, highly intelligent man. And his performance at the economic summit he hosted verged on the spectacular. When have we had a president who has had such a grasp of the economic intricacies?

Hard-working and highly disciplined - that's been the main impression left from the daily views we get on TV, including his assiduous battle against weight as he runs and runs and runs. Just about everyone takes their hats off to someone who will accept the discomfort - or drudgery, at least - of so diligently sticking to a keep-fit schedule.

Also, economic news has been running in the new president's favor. An improving economy should lead to an electorate that is, marginally at least, happier and more patient.

At the same time, the disclosure that the federal deficit is even greater than had been earlier reported gives Clinton a persuasive argument for going a little slower on some of his get-the-country-going-again promises.

I'm not predicting that Clinton will have a long honeymoon. But as he takes office I'm leaning toward the view that the public is going to give this very earnest, verbal, likable fellow a chance to make his mark.

Unless he self-destructs, perhaps with some very wrong foreign policy decision, he might have at least a year to show he has the stuff.

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