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

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)

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Full Stack Developer (.NET 4.0, ASP.NET, MVC, Ajax, WCF,SQL)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Full Stack ...

AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - Investment Management

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - I...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law