ON Inauguration Day, United States residents pause and reflect on the solemnity of our ritual transfer of power and the awesome responsibility that now rests on the shoulders of one man, alone in thought as he paces the Rose Garden while the world watches.
It is a time of quadrennial renewal. When President Bush leaves the White House, Texas pork rinds will disappear from delis, replaced by Arkansan snack food that may enjoy a brief vogue and then languish unbought behind crab-flavored potato chips.
It is also a day when the view of those who live here narrows to basic questions: Who are those tourists spilling out of the subway? Why are they wearing those bootlegged inauguration buttons on their hats? When will they leave so we can get some work done?
Of course, the new Clinton team in the White House may not want all the inaugural-goers to go home. When the party is over, the governing has to begin. The sudden reality of responsibility has a way of making a president hedge on campaign pledges.
President-elect Clinton may or may not have known during the campaign that his promise of a middle-class tax cut was unrealistic, given deficit projections. But his statement that right now such a tax cut is inadvisable has become a media mini-flap, the first of hundreds that will likely bedevil him before he is a private citizen again.
Few people remember that the same thing happened at the start of the Reagan revolution. Incoming Treasury Secretary Donald Regan said at his confirmation hearing that, well, maybe the budget could not be balanced until 1984. This comment was slammed by reporters as a major reversal of Reagan's earlier position.
That the deficit has since continued to grow at more than $2 million an hour is a lesson in the realities of presidential life. During the campaign, Mr. Clinton could easily lay out his agenda. During his term in office, it will take the utmost of his abilities to keep the world's agenda from controlling his agenda.
SADDAM HUSSEIN'S continuing intransigence in Iraq will be one of Clinton's major problems for months, if not years, to come. And that is not the only foreign-policy crisis that will be sitting on his Oval Office desk when he comes to work Jan. 21.
Already, he has had to say that he will extend the Bush administration's policy of forcibly turning back Haitian boat people. Again, this is a major twist, if not a reversal, in a campaign promise, though Clinton insists it is a temporary one. Clinton aides have tried to soften the impact of the change by pledging an increase in processing centers for Haitian refugees in third countries.
Dozens of commentators have pointed out that Clinton will be hard pressed just to focus on domestic affairs, as he wants to do. No less an authority than President Carter has said that Clinton is inheriting more problems in the world than any president since President Truman.
Mr. Carter himself worked hard to the last minute of his term, freeing hostages held in Lebanon and clearing the slate for his Republican successor.
For the moment, though, Clinton should not worry about the view from Washington. There will be enough time for that. He should enjoy his inauguration, that day of all days when the rest of the world will be watching him.