Clinton denied his honeymoon: After 21 faltering days, the President has had to recall his PR team, writes Rupert Cornwell in Washington

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The Independent Online
FIRST the good news. The famous 'War Room' led by James Carville, the gunslinging political strategist who did so much to plot Bill Clinton's election victory, is back; not in Little Rock, but re-assembled in Room 160 of the Executive Office Building, a stone's throw from the White House. The bad news is that the services of Mr Carville and his colleagues should so quickly be required.

It feels like an aeon, but only 21 days have passed since the United States basked in an inauguration that evoked memories of John Kennedy. Rarely did the stars seem set so fair for an incoming president. The country's military pre-eminence is unchallenged. Alone of the world's leading economies, the US is recovering. For the first time since the 1970s, Congress and the White House are controlled by the same party. Debilitating gridlock ought at last to be over. Small wonder that so many Europeans, tired of governments without alternatives, lacklustre leaders and bankrupt parties, looked enviously at America's demonstration of renewal and generational change.

Alas, the first three weeks of life under a baby-boomer President have not quite measured up to expectations. First came the Zoe Baird fiasco, complete with the Kimba Wood sequel and a demeaning squabble with women's groups over double standards in the employment of illegal aliens. Sandwiched between them was the entr'acte over homosexuals in the armed forces, which squandered goodwill in Congress and greatly displeased the military establishment. The media offers a portrait of an omnipotent First Lady. All the while there is the soft churning sound of campaign promises being gently pulped.

As Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader, put it, a cabinet supposed to 'look like America' in fact resembles 'a session of the American Bar Association'. Promises of a middle-class tax cut have evaporated. Immigration and Coast Guard vessels have imposed a cordon sanitaire around Haiti of which George Bush might have been proud. Campaign talk of harsh action in Bosnia blurs into tinkering with the Owen-Vance peace plan. Surely the new age was not supposed to look like this? Perhaps in reality it does not.

Scratch the veneer of complaints (mostly from the press), and encouragement may be drawn from the administration's early deeds. By putting his wife in charge of health-care reform, the President has signalled his intention of tackling head-on the most daunting domestic problem. He has set out a blueprint for a new welfare system which, however vague, cuts through much stale dogma and has won praise from both parties. Finally, if yesterday's news of a 25 per cent cut in the staff and curbs on White House pay and perks is any indication, his State Of The Union address next Wednesday will contain serious proposals to reduce the budget deficit. But in politics perceptions are all - and there the campaign maestro's touch has strangely, if temporarily, disappeared.

Part of the trouble is the eminently correctable one of relations with the press. Mr Bush had no more valuable servant than his hugely experienced and accessible spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater. His replacement, George Stephanopoulos ('George Stay-On-Top-Of-This', as a cartoonist unkindly dubbed him this week) is a 31-year-old novice in the trade, whose unquestioned abilities have yet to be tempered by humour or humility. Nor has he so far had much of substance to announce. White House press briefings have been barren sparring matches: yesterday's session produced 60 questions on the hapless Ms Wood; not quite the image that Mr Clinton is seeking to project.

But not only controversy fills the vacuum. Any US president deserves if not a honeymoon, at least a breathing space. Gossip filtering from the White House these days all too easily re-inforces the impression (never entirely banished during the campaign) that Mr Clinton is no more than a spongy, ambitious dilettante - a man wedded to nothing but his re-election, who sits up half the night talking in a politically correct White House where broccoli and leftish lawyers are in, but smoking and decision-making are out.

A remark by a close aide that Mr Clinton wanted to use his office as 'more of a planning and policy co-ordination function, as opposed to actually having administrative responsibilities', has not helped. Nor did last month's cabinet retreat at Camp David, by all accounts part think-in and part trendy group therapy; if the Washington Post is to be believed, a 'human-resource development' bonding exercise complete with professional 'facilitators'. What, one might wonder, is going on?

The answer is very simple. Bill Clinton is behaving as he behaved as Governor of Arkansas. His political style has always been built around a matchless command of detail, consensus and compromise, a readiness to hear every point of view, and a reluctance to make up his mind until the clock strikes midnight. During the campaign he did not disguise his methods - and they will be the ones in force at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the next four years. Nor, most immediately relevant, did he conceal his extraordinary political partnership with his wife.

Thus far, to the audible relief of Mr Clinton's aides, the public seems remarkably unperturbed by the role already being played by this most powerful of first ladies, boasting a larger senior staff than even Vice-President Al Gore; she has moved into an office directly above that of her husband. For all the bitchy jokes about a sign on the Oval Office desk reading 'The Buck Stops Upstairs', Hillary Rodham Clinton (as she is henceforth to be known) is at least as popular as he. But the perils are obvious. What if the President disagrees with his wife's plans for health-care reform, what if they come to grief? And most dangerous of all, what if the impression takes root that the person who runs the government is not Bill Clinton, but his unelected spouse?

Such fears, for the moment, are hypothetical. Mr Clinton has yet to make the decisions which will shape his presidency, and after 12 years of Republican rule, his ministers and senior officials understandably are only starting to feel their way. Within days, much will be clearer about the administration's policies on trade and the Yugoslav crisis; God and the immigration laws permitting, there will even be a nominee for Attorney-General. The real test comes in a week's time. If Mr Clinton produces a coherent, fair and credible economic plan, which taps the mood on which both he and Ross Perot flourished last year, early mis-steps will quickly be forgotten. To borrow another Bob Dole aphorism, there are still 'three years and forty-nine weeks of this four-year term to go'.

But the learning process cannot go on for ever. No office on earth is crueller than the presidency of the United States. Which is the main reason why Messrs Carville and the rest are back at work. As they know better than anyone, in politics, image is everything.

(Photograph omitted)