ALL hail the new president! He's off to an auspicious beginning. His inaugural speech set the right tone and, for the most part, drew rave reviews. And his public approval ratings are up near the 70 percent mark.
But just as what may be a lengthy honeymoon with the public and with Congress gets underway (with little likelihood it will be affected by the Zoe Baird selection blunder), the love affair of the media with President Clinton - so evident in the fall campaign - suddenly begins to cool off.
Pundits now are holding Mr. Clinton's feet to the fire, particularly on his many promises. It has been clear all along that Clinton was out-promising realistic possibilities. How could he, indeed, cut the deficit in half and still fulfill his pledges to increase spending for public works, job training, and education, to overhaul the welfare system, to allow college students to work off loans by joining a national service corps, to cut taxes for middle-income families and businesses that invest in new equ ipment and - at the same time - raise taxes on no one but families with annual incomes above $200,000?
Liberal pundit Michael Kinsley, charging that Clinton has come up with a "phony" excuse for not halving the deficit - that the numbers he was relying on were wrong - writes: "The truth is that Bush and Clinton both knew last summer that the official numbers underestimated the deficit...."
But the most serious accusation being leveled in the press against Clinton relates not to broken promises but to his allegedly sending signals to Iraq that undercut the official United States and United Nations position. Out front with this criticism is columnist William Safire, who asserts that in five of Clinton's answers in a New York Times interview he offered Saddam Hussein "the chance to let bygones be bygones if only he would behave himself in the future."
Clinton has sought to erase the impression that he would be conciliatory in dealing with Iraq. Indeed, on several occasions now he has made it clear that he would faithfully follow Bush's tough approach. Although US air attacks on Iraqi missile sites have continued since Clinton became president, his blunder may well have encouraged Saddam to believe that he could defy and taunt his old enemy, Bush, as he was leaving office and still later on work out some kind of reconciliation with a man who says: "I'm
a Baptist. I believe in deathbed conversion."
Not since Richard Nixon took office has a new president been inaugurated in the midst of a war. Iraq is no Vietnam; yet it holds a troubling potential for bogging the US down in a continual cat-and-mouse game, or even worse. Saddam Hussein now has declared a goodwill cease-fire, announcing he will allow UN observers to fly into Baghdad without interference. But the Iraq crisis remains an immense problem for the new president.
And even as Clinton continues to adhere in his public utterances to Bush's firm policy toward Iraq, one might wonder whether he still might have his own plan or approach, not yet unveiled, for dealing with an explosive situation that isn't likely to stay quiet as long as Saddam is around.
Clinton seems well-armed to fulfill his many promises for the home front and still deal with his problems abroad. The American public seems ready to believe that he is some kind of superman. For example, a New York Times poll now indicates that three-fourths of the public thinks that the new president "cares about their needs and problems."
That survey also suggests much indifference to campaign promises, with the exception of health care. At the same time, a Washington Post poll finds optimism is high for Clinton on a host of problems. People, realistically or not, seem to have confidence that this smiling young warrior can do just about anything he sets out to do. But popularity only endures when success is being achieved. Clinton's special problem is that he accused Bush of neglecting domestic affairs as he focused on global action. Now,
Clinton himself, will find it very difficult, right from the outset not to be diverted in much the same way.
The task ahead - getting the country going again and at the same time doing what is necessary abroad - is, indeed, a daunting one for the new president.