President Clinton misses out on his political honeymoon: Bill Clinton is taking more flak from his Democrat 'friends' than Republicans, writes Rupert Cornwell

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WHATEVER happened to the US presidential honeymoon? The standard period of grace used to be 100 days, even six months. On 20 January, the inauguration of the first baby-boomer in the White House was hailed as a new beginning. To judge from this weekend's headlines, the assembled ranks of American punditry are already suing for divorce.

'Hope is rapidly turning into chilly uneasiness, even dismay,' opined the Los Angeles Times. 'Incredibly inept,' was the verdict of the influential Democratic commentator Mark Shields.

The first week and a half of the Clinton administration has not gone well. Campaign promises have been reversed. The Zoe Baird affair was a misjudgement of the public mood. The gays-in- the-military rumpus into which the President blundered was an even more surprising political misjudgement.

But the US media are famously obsessed with the short term, and no modern President has ridden such a roller-coaster as Bill Clinton. Barely a year ago, many of today's critics were proclaiming urbi et orbi that Gennifer Flowers and the Vietnam draft controversy had doomed his candidacy. By autumn, they were hailing him as a saviour.

Two months ago, the same seers who now compare Clinton's debut to Jimmy Carter's bumbling start in 1977 were calling him the most skilled political operator to enter the White House since Lyndon Johnson. Even the President's fondness for jogging has not escaped. Last November it symbolised a generational change of guard. Now the Washington Post blames it for pre-dawn traffic jams.

Psychology has played a part, not least the resentment of the media that one of their own age is running the country - and, by sealing off access to the White House press room, has had the cheek to tamper with a practice dating back to the Kennedy era. His aides have contrived to appear both arrogant and unprepared.

In fact much has been achieved. A string of executive orders has given a Democratic imprint to abortion law. A parental leave bill is almost ready for signature. By mid-May a task force headed by Hillary Clinton is due to present a blueprint for health care reform, the most pressing domestic issue.

Robert Dole, the powerful Senate minority leader, cautioned yesterday against snap judgements: 'Wait a year, even six months and I'll tell you. Mistakes have been made, but there are three years, 50 weeks and two days of his term to go. I'm not ready to pass judgement just yet.'

Right now the President has few defenders. Perversely but somehow predictably, foremost among them has been Ross Perot. 'You're up there all alone,' said the Texas billionaire whose quirky candidacy largely fashioned the 1992 race. 'It's like being inside a barrel with everyone beating on it with sticks and hammers . . . He is just sort of stunned now, with everything hitting him at once.'