LONG-TIME observers of the Washington scene haven't seen anything like this. Before he hardly hits the ground President Clinton is stirring up things royally. After only two days in office, headlines like these could be read:
"Joint Chiefs Fighting Plan to Allow Homosexuals in Military;" "Clinton Cancels Abortion Restrictions of Reagan-Bush Era;" "President Takes Blame for Rushing Baird Selection;" "Gag Rule on Clinics, Federal Bans on Fetal Tissue Research Are Lifted;" "Thousands Voice Opposition [to Clinton] in 20th Annual March for Life."
Most presidents are still trying to get settled in the White House at such an early moment. We breathlessly await Mr. Clinton's next move. Is he off to a bad start that will mar his administration? Or will he be able to sweep some highly controversial issues behind him in order to clear the way for a host of major programs? The last was obviously his intent, particularly on the abortion and gay issues. But he's been roughed up by Congress on his gays-in-the-military initiative.
No president in my memory has assumed his new duties and responsibilities with such immediate forcefulness. Indeed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was still transforming himself from a relatively conservative-sounding campaigner into the liberal experimenter and activist president that he became.
Those Clinton headlines tell of a president who had already made up his mind about what he was going to do before he arrived. And he's doing it - or, at least, trying to do it. He's convinced that his prospects for victory on a number of what he considers vital initiatives are at their best when he first arrives and during his early months.
His nomination of Zoe Baird, which misfired? Well, he admits that this was the result of his insistence on speedy movement. He takes the blame and moves on - implying that his blueprint for rapid-fire action includes the likelihood that some decisions might suffer from this swift, judgmental process. Also, it's clear that Clinton didn't anticipate so much fuss over gays in the military. He should have.
I haven't figured out Bill Clinton yet. I saw during the inaugural how wonderful he is in dealing with people. His warmth - his handshakes and his hugs - appear to be coming from a man who genuinely loves and cares about people. Sure, such personableness is political, too, and he's what is known as a consummate politician. But the president I'm beginning to know seems to be someone who enthusiastically likes his fellowman - privately, publicly, and all the time.
Having said all that, what does Clinton's friendly puppy-dog way with people have to do with being president and getting things done? Well, it seems clear that as he meets up with resistance - as he already has - it will help him in winning some battles he might otherwise lose and, when victory isn't possible, it may avert polarization and pave the way to workable accommodations. But the smile-and-pat-on-the-back approach is not without hazards. Already, some of those who observed Clinton as he governed Arkansas have come up with this warning: That in his desire to be loved by everyone he too often makes promises to too many people and sometimes to those on both sides of an issue. Thus the nickname "Slick Willy."
There's also the matter of the Clinton strategy. Clinton is a lover of sports - particularly football. A Washingtonian who has been privy to the new president's political thinking says that the former Arkansas governor comes here with a game plan and it looks like this: He feels by winning the presidency he has also won the toss. So he will receive. Then with great speed and aggressiveness he intends to march right down the field to a touchdown before his opponents hardly know what has hit them. He thus hopes to gain momentum from the outset and hold it by keeping his opposition off-balance with a flurry of well-organized and well-planned initiatives.
Americans are in for some real action. But they may not like all of it - as already evidenced by what may be called the Baird and gay-military flaps. And they soon may be choosing up sides as the Joint Chiefs of Staffs push their efforts to derail Clinton's plan to reduce duplication of weapons in the three military services.