AS Mrs. Clinton fades from public view, the vice president is emerging as the No. 2 force in this administration. From the outset Al Gore Jr. has been highly influential - often at the president's side and very early taking on the role of working to make the government more efficient. But Bill and Hillary Clinton were the one-two punch.
For a while Mrs. Clinton's highly visible role had been cheered; sometimes her approval rating was above the president's. But post-election polling after the Republican victories of November showed that she had become a political minus: only half the women voters were still supporting her, and nearly 70 percent of male voters were upset with her.
It isn't that the vice president or the way he conducts himself has changed. He was the same loyal, supportive-of-the-president Al Gore as he met with journalists at the Monitor forum just hours after the president delivered his State of the Union address.
Mr. Gore insisted that the president's speech did have a central theme and wasn't, as critics charged, discursive and too long. President Clinton, he said, had made it clear that he would work with the Republicans where he could to strengthen the economy but would put up a fight against any GOP moves that would ``bust the budget.''
Gore was asked about the president's call for cutting spending and providing tax breaks for middle-income groups. ``Aren't the Democrats in danger of becoming a me-too party?'' the questioner asked. No, Gore replied, the president has been trying to move the party ``toward the center'' from the beginning of his administration. ``We want a leaner but not a meaner government,'' he said. Gore also made it clear that the president would oppose any GOP measures that would ``hurt poor people.''
It's clear that without any push on his part Gore has moved into the vacuum left by Mrs. Clinton.
Doubtless Mrs. Clinton remains a very potent force in this administration in her behind-the-scenes role of consulting with her husband and in her dealing with the White House staff. But publicly she seems to have pulled back - at least for now.
That leaves the vice president very much in the limelight. He's already become the most active vice president in history. Now the question might be asked: Must Gore be careful lest he be perceived as overstepping the secondary role prescribed in the Constitution?
There seems to be no danger of this occurring. Gore, in a very disciplined way, has been scrupulous in making clear that everything he says or does is in compliance with presidential views or orders. At no time has Gore talked as though he views himself as a partner of the president.
It is significant that during this shift in influence at the top the people involved - the Clintons and the Gores - to all accounts remain very good friends. Obviously Mrs. Clinton doesn't view this as an inappropriate upward push from the vice president.