His Agenda for Change in Hand, Clinton Steps Into the Oval Office

NOON on Jan. 20: The man from Hope, Ark., takes on the biggest job in the world.

The Clinton presidency begins with a key advantage that George Bush lacked four years ago: The government is no longer divided between parties.

But the challenges before President Clinton are also more difficult than those that confronted Mr. Bush.

While Bush set out mainly to soften the hard edges of the Reagan revolution, the Clinton agenda involves numerous domestic changes that cannot be broached without asking for sacrifice from large segments of the public.

He was clearly elected to bring change, yet unlike Franklin Roosevelt he does not have a Depression-scale crisis forcing a public consensus around strong action.

Mr. Clinton begins with a fresh breeze of goodwill at his back. At least two separate surveys show large majorities of the public - between 67 percent and 84 percent - approved of his transition performance.

But even in the couple of weeks since those surveys were taken, Clinton has hit some very public snags:

* Some questions of ethical judgment have arisen over his Cabinet nominees to run the Justice and Commerce Departments.

* He has already reversed himself on several campaign promises, most notably on overly optimistic deficit-cutting goals and an expressed interest in a more humane treatment of Haitian refugees.

* Clinton also crossed signals with Bush over when the senior officials who run government agencies would step aside for Clinton's appointees. Early in the transition, an ambitious Clinton asked that Bush's presidential appointees clear out by noon Jan. 20. They in fact will, but in the vast majority of cases, Clinton is not ready to replace them.

Clinton still has very strong forces working in his favor. His party has an 82-seat advantage in the House of Representatives and a 14-seat advantage in the Senate. The Democrats in Congress have a general incentive to cooperate with Clinton in order to restore the reputation of both Congress and the Democratic Party.

"Clinton inherits a Democratic Congress under siege," says William Gormley, a Georgetown University political scientist. "They need to prove they can act without bickering."

Clinton and Congress can probably pass a string of popular bills (that Bush had vetoed) without much more strife than found at an inaugural ball. Unpaid family-leave mandates and lifting the ban on abortion-counseling at federally funded abortion clinics are two of the easy ones. Clinton's plan to raise taxes on people with incomes above $200,000 may not be much harder to pass.

But none of these moves will bring him significantly closer to his key goals: reducing the deficit, stimulating job creation, raising long-term investment, and controlling health-care costs while expanding access.

The federal budget deficit is the problem that will constrain action in many other spheres. The annual deficit is so big now - bigger than the entire defense budget - that few people harbor illusions that it can be cut seriously without affecting millions of citizens.

"The president and the Democratic Party in Congress have got to grab hold of entitlements, otherwise, they'll have no initiatives of their own," says Aaron Wildavsky, a University of California, Berkeley, presidential scholar.

Controlling the cost of entitlements will help Clinton in the long run, years away, but create many political enemies for him in the meantime, says Dr. Wildavsky.Clinton hopes to control the biggest runaway cost in the federal budget by controlling health-care costs. But even if his proposals come fast and pass soon, any impact on the budget is at least several years away.

"The bigger problem, the central issue, is whether he can keep the support of his own followers," says Wildavsky.

Clinton won the White House on a centrist platform, but Congress, especially the House, is controlled by liberals, notes George Edwards III, a Texas A&M political scientist: "He may have to reach outside the Democratic Party" to carry out his agenda, he says.

BUT the House Republican Party is controlled by conservatives in no mood for compromise, adds Dr. Edwards.

Most experts, and Capitol Hill aides as well, expect that Clinton will aim to carry most Democrats in Congress, sacrifice some support on the left wing, and make up the difference among moderate Republicans.

"I suspect a lot of his legislation will tend to look like liberal Republican legislation, Rockefeller Republican," says Ryan Barrilleaux, a presidential scholar at Miami University in Ohio.

Ideology aside, the goodwill and desire for action in Congress are vague sentiments next to the prospect of asking their constituents to make sacrifices.

"If it's constituents versus a general idea, then the constituents win," Edwards says.

The first clear measure of the new president's prospects for success, as even his own aides have acknowledged, will be whether he can focus his agenda on just a few big items that he wants. Clinton knows this. His inauguration speech offers the first clear sign of whether he has done it.

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