Facebook Twitter



PRESIDENT CLINTON IS dangerously close to the thin ice that tripped up former President Bush. People are beginning to ask what he stands for.

From Bosnia to military spending to health care to tax cuts, Clinton seems to change strategy whenever he's having a hard time withstanding the prevailing currents.Bush lost the 1992 election not just because he ran a terrible campaign and didn't take the recession seriously but also because he built his presidency on shifting principles and seemed to have no firm basis for change.

Halfway through Clinton's first term, the questions being asked are alarming.

Will he continue to push his No. 1 priority of health care reform and universal coverage, moderate it or give it up as a lost cause? Will he stand by deficit reduction or yield to the demands for a tax cut? Will he spend more and more time on foreign policy or seek to get his domestic political base back, whatever it takes? Where will he compromise with the Republican Congress and where will he draw the line?

Most worrisome of all is that Clinton seems lost. He is leading a major debate on all this inside the White House, bringing in outsiders to add to the internal cacophony as the world watches and waits.

What are his instincts? We're told he hasn't decided yet, that he wants to take his time deciding what's best for the American people.

The American people, despite their understandable desire to have the president's first priority be putting their financial house in order, do not want the United States to relinquish its leadership abroad. Yet Clinton even seems adrift abroad.

The United Nations and NATO, both financed heavily and participated in politically by the United States, are disintegrating and Clinton is wringing his hands in indecision about what to do, denying there's a problem in the U.S. relationship with Europe.

It now seems clear that 50 years ago it should have been possible to stop the slaughter of 6 million Jews. Last year Clinton pledged another holocaust would never again be permitted even as his administration conceded that the Bosnian Serbs were engaged in genocide.

Now Clinton says there is nothing that can be done to stop the Serbs unless they are willing to negotiate peace. Every time the Serbs reject a U.N. ultimatum, another peace plan or another cease-fire or take more peacekeepers hostage - they now have hundreds - or humiliate the U.N. secretary general, the West capitulates to make the terms of victory more favorable.

Clinton has believed for a long time that post-Cold War defense spending has been too high. But now that Republicans are in power and claiming that military readiness has slipped, Clinton is proposing to increase defense spending.

Clinton took his time deciding how wholeheartedly to support the North American Free Trade Agreement. He finally decided free trade and the world trade agreement would be a major hallmark of his presidency. But when it comes to pushing for a free-trade region in this hemisphere, Clinton has done almost nothing. Instead, he has devoted large amounts of time and money to the side issue of Haiti.

The endless charges of waffling that were leveled against Clinton for the past two years by now should have disappeared as his accomplishments mounted. Instead, such charges have grown into a more substantial cause for concern that Clinton is a creature of political expediency.

Even when Ronald Reagan was wrong, as he was in letting the federal deficit balloon, or when he bungled, as he did in the Iran-Contra affair, people believed he knew himself and what he was about.

Lately, when things go wrong, Clinton rearranges his staff and holds more meetings and jumps on Air Force One to cross the Atlantic. He promises vaguely in press conferences to do better or re-invent more of the government or tout his victories more loudly.

As most presidents do, Clinton obviously cares about the country and wants to be a good, compassionate, effective agent of change. But deciding how to ensure that legacy seems to be giving him an inordinate amount of trouble.

The American people have a finite amount of patience and aren't about to hang around the pond while Clinton practices to be an Olympic skater.