WHEN President Clinton walks into the Oval Office today, fresh from an Asian summit and Hawaiian mini-vacation, he may find himself in as difficult a domestic political position as any chief executive has faced for many years.
In his absence, triumphant Republicans have seized control of Washington's agenda and laid out plans for big change on Capitol Hill. House Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia has sounded almost like a surrogate national leader, running a transition that in its tidiness and specificity harks back to the coming of President Ronald Reagan in 1980 - at least, so far.
Mr. Clinton now will likely sit down and ponder strategy for a possible Democratic counterrevolution. Fighting back won't be an easy task.
``It really is as bad a peacetime box as any president has been in since at least Ford pardoned Nixon in the middle of stagflation,'' says Leo Ribuffo, a professor of political history at D.C.'s George Washington University.
The president has been out of Washington since shortly after the historic midterm elections that brought Republicans to power in both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years. His absence could be judged both necessary, as the Indonesia summit of Asia-Pacific leaders was an important one, and a politic move to let the opposition have its day.
But while he has been gone, the Washington political dialogue has been dominated by Republicans, to put it mildly.
Perhaps the harshest words about Clinton himself came from incoming Senate Foreign Relations chairman Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, who said that both he and many military personnel believe Clinton is not up to the job of US commander-in-chief. The remark drew a reaffirmation of support for the president from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. John Shalikashvili on Saturday.
GOP House leader Gingrich has moved quickly to name his new team of committee chairmen and outline the legislation he plans to pump onto the chamber floor after his party takes over in January. Not for Mr. Gingrich the Clinton model of a transition to power, with a haze of complexity and televised seminars about the nation's economic future.
Gingrich instead appears to have learned from the tight discipline of Reagan's transition in 1980, when in-coming Republicans hit a reeling Democratic Party with a quick burst of bills.
``It makes all the difference in the world when you know what you want to do,'' notes Stephen Hess, a senior fellow in government studies at the Brookings Institution. ``As long a shot as the GOP winning the House really was, Gingrich seems to have done a great deal of preparation.''
So what should Clinton do now?
As he sits pondering his fate in the Oval Office, perhaps in front of the first crackling fire of the season, the president might already be nostalgic for those days when his biggest political problem was placating a Democratic House majority.
Above all, say a range of political experts, he should not overreact. ``Play it by ear,'' says Professor Ribuffo. ``Sound conciliatory at the outset. Keep big guns in reserve, if a real counterattack seems possible.''
The Republican Congress is likely to have a narrow window at the beginning of next year in which to act on its legislative agenda. By the end of next summer, jockeying for the upcoming 1996 presidential vote could start to close this window, notes James Pfiffner, a political scientist at George Mason University in Virginia who studies political transitions.
Fissures in the Republican Party could widen, with moderates, libertarians, and the Christian right all looking to their own presidential prospects instead of the common legislative agenda.
Against this background, Clinton should identify GOP proposals that appeal to US moderates and help them along, says Dr. Pfiffner. A presidential line-item veto to cut spending might be one such item; limited health-care reform, some sort of campaign finance reform, and lobbying reform might be others.
``Get out ahead of things you think are going to pass,'' agrees George Edwards, a Texas A&M political scientist specializing in presidential power. ``Say, `I called for that.' Cast yourself as the sympathetic but more responsible partner.''
IF well done, such an approach might allow the White House to define choices for the US public on such bigger issues as welfare reform, and perhaps even taxes and budget reduction.
A strategy of outright hostility aimed at Congress may be unlikely to work, either in a legislative sense or in terms of a political boost for the 1996 vote.
Running against a ``do-nothing'' Congress worked for President Truman in 1948, but Truman had advantages that Clinton will not have, according to several historians. For one thing, Americans came to admire Truman personally in a way they seem unable to connect with Clinton. Truman's views on the role of government in society may have been more in tune with the times than Clinton's appear to be.
Perhaps most important, Truman could invoke the cold war and the necessity to maintain continuity at a time of international tension. It seems unlikely the US will be running a repeat of the Berlin airlift when the 1996 vote rolls around.