IT'S earn-your-salary time in the Oval Office. Major problems are about to test President Clinton's mettle in the next few weeks:
*Republicans will soon be at the gates with their revolution all packaged and ready for tough post-veto negotiations.
*Canada, America's biggest trading partner and best neighbor, awaits results tomorrow from its long-playing Quebec splat that could lead to a tragic national divorce.
*Bosnian peace talks are about to start. If they go as scheduled, President Clinton will have to press ahead in a couple of weeks on the contentious issue of sending United States troops to NATO duty, policing the settlement.
*Boris Yeltsin, a generally helpful hand on Bosnia, nuclear- and heavy- weapons control, and other major issues, is sidelined again. And Russian parliamentary elections loom, with former Communists and defy-the-world nationalists gaining influence.
*Gen. Colin Powell, looking more than ever like General Eisenhower edging up to challenge front-running conservative Senator Taft in 1952, is getting advice from conservative GOP stars Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett - and big GOP campaign funders.
All these events seem to represent a sea of troubles for Mr. Clinton. And, with the exception of Colin Powell, potential disturbance for America. Let's examine the list, one by one, and see how Mr. Clinton and the congressional Republican leaders might act in the best interests of America. After that, a further look at General Powell.
The GOP package and Clinton
Messrs. Gingrich and Dole can do themselves a favor and de-barb the promised Clinton veto of their budget. How? If Mr. Gingrich will quietly urge his House negotiators to settle for a package more closely resembling the Senate's, they can make the Clinton veto seem less a defense of America's future and more a campaign ploy. That means cutting less from programs that invest in future US competitiveness. And it means moderating both the size and timing of the proposed tax cut. Such a result would present a plan that more nearly balances sacrifice between the present and future generations of Americans. It would place deficit cutting before tax cutting.
Mr. Clinton, in turn, would do both the future of the nation and his stature a favor if he avoids the fear-spreading of congressional minority leaders and focuses his bargaining primarily on items relating to future generations' success: i.e., education and research.
It would be a tragedy for Canada, for the people of Quebec, and for general world morale if Quebeckers move toward seceding. Canada represents so much of what is admirable in a nation - not the least its dual-ethnic balancing over three centuries - that few, down deep, want to see a bitter rupture. If today's referendum vote goes against separatism once more, both Mr. Clinton and GOP leaders should quickly show they back the result.
If Quebec voters says yes to separatism, it would help to have bipartisan support on three points: (1) Honest respect for French Canadian culture. (2) Absolute clarity on the cost to Quebec of renegotiating trade terms and access to US markets. (3) Support for Prime Minister Chretien's next moves to hold Canada together.
Bosnian peace talks in Ohio
Here, the onus for statesmanship falls more on the GOP. Agreement on a deal in the "Camp David talks" near Dayton, Ohio, will be hugely difficult. GOP leaders have made clear their worries about sending US troops to Bosnia. Now they should clam up and let the talks proceed. If a deal is reached in Dayton and signed in Paris, there is good reason to let well-armed NATO peacekeepers enforce the deal. GOP leaders should seek clarification about details, but not block the peace effort. Clinton will bear responsibility to the American people for results.
Yeltsin and the Old Red Guard
If US leaders have learned anything about dealing with post-cold-war Moscow, it is not to pursue an "indispensable man" policy. It's true that compared with much of his opposition Yeltsin is cooperative and sensible on global matters. But deals struck by the Bush and Clinton administrations on matters such as weapons sales and nuclear power plant refitting have become institutionalized and accepted by Yeltsin's responsible opponents (if not fervent jingoists). And his illness may nudge Russian voters toward backing more solid (perhaps even stolid) politicians to assure stability in turbulent times. Clinton, Gore & company should quietly seek to support this trend. GOP support would help.
What about the Powell factor?
Last summer we urged General Powell to enter the race. We do so again. Not as an endorsement. Simply to help break widespread cynicism - the feeling of many voters that they don't get a chance to vote for a leader the polls show they favor.
Anyone with a sense of history will see a resemblance between General Eisenhower's challenge to the "deserving" Senator Taft and General Powell's threat to the "deserving" Senator Dole. Powell, like Eisenhower, will be roughed up politically if he chooses to run. But he would also provide a thoughtful contrast to Mr. Clinton's view of America's future.