THE growing talk around Washington is of a one-term president. It's coming from all sides, but Newt Gingrich put President Clinton's problems in the most critical words I've heard when he said at a Monitor breakfast the other morning:
``You have the most ethics problems since Warren Harding. You have an administration that is to the left of Dukakis. You have a level of confusion greater than that of Jimmy Carter. All in one administration. Now in that setting, why would the country be happy?''
You might expect such severe criticism from the strongly Republican partisan Mr. Gingrich. Yet he is worth citing because he put in extreme terms what even many of those who voted for Mr. Clinton now are saying, at least in part and less harshly.
Gingrich also provided some surprising comments when one reporter asked whether he thought Clinton was destined for defeat in '96. ``In these days of television, cycles are about 90 days long,'' he said. ``I think if Clinton has a good 90-day cycle in '96 before election day, he will be reelected. If he doesn't, he won't.''
Twice Gingrich spoke of ``how very resilient'' Clinton has proved to be in the past. ``Presidents,'' he said, ``have huge reserves of prestige and resources. Who knows what will happen?''
Warming up to this theme, Gingrich painted this picture: ``We could easily have a Clinton presidency in '96 with Jim Baker as chief of staff and three Republicans serving in a bipartisan Cabinet and a wonderfully matured president who has learned from all his lessons.... People would admire him and say, `Gee, what a great guy. We have seen him grow in office and he now deserves a second term.' ''
Perhaps Gingrich was also inadvertently providing a clue to one of the big current Washington mysteries: Why is the president able to look so relaxed and carefree in public appearances when he is beset by such bad polls and a very contentious Congress? Clinton is doubtless buoyed by the thought that he has made comebacks before and can do it again.
Sure, Clinton is having his bad moments behind the scenes. Bob Woodward has told us about his temper and scoldings of aides. But only a man with a naturally cheerful disposition could keep joking and laughing the way he does publicly when so much is going wrong.
He's learned since boyhood how to deal gracefully with adversity. That's what has been on display of late. We saw a good example of this when he kidded with reporters at a press conference, then invited them to the State dining room for a birthday party. He explained that the cake was without candles ``because I've expended all my hot air on you.'' One observer described the scene this way: ``On his 48th birthday, the president was all sunshine and optimism.''
Often Clinton is compared to Kennedy because of their youth and even their appearances. But I think there is more than a touch of Ronald Reagan in Clinton - the Reagan we saw in the hospital right after the assassination attempt. ``All in all I would rather be in Philadelphia,'' the old actor quipped. Americans everywhere applauded his spunk.
Gingrich offered this final capsulized forecast: ``Things come and go. Is it likely that Clinton will make a comeback? Less and less. Is it possible he will make a comeback? Absolutely.''