Clinton praises political centre, which can hold, has held and continues to hold d

Burned by experience and facing the continuing reality of a Republican- controlled Congress, President Clinton yesterday sent the strongest of messages that he intends to continue the centrist policies which won him the White House in 1992, and which propelled him to a remarkable comeback victory in 1996.

Four years ago, Mr Clinton was elected as a "New Democrat", breaking with the big government orthodoxy that had lost his party the three previous elections. Yesterday, he chose to deliver his most important speech between re-election and next month's inauguration at the symbolic site of the Democratic Leadership Council, the moderate pressure group he once led and whose advocacy of more discriminating government became the ideological launch pad of Mr Clinton's first presidential bid.

Urging the "mobilisation of the vital centre", Mr Clinton set out a platform that "is not liberal or con- servative, but [is] both and different." Despite predictions of its demise, the political centre "can hold, has held, and the American people are asking it continue to hold," the President said.

Mr Clinton's hands are tied - far more than they were four years ago, when a leftward lurch in his Administration provoked the Democrats' 1994 mid-term disaster. With entrenched Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, compromise and "bipartisanship" are the watchwords for Mr Clinton's second term.

The centrist slant is already showing in the make-up of Mr Clinton's second-term Cabinet: not only with the appointment of the outgoing Republican Senator, William Cohen, as Defense Secretary, and the nomination of the hawkish Madeleine Albright to the State Department, but also in the jockeying for half a dozen domestic cabinet posts.

Pressure from blacks, minorities and women's groups for top jobs, so conspicuous in the 1992 transition, is almost absent. Those favoured this time include William Daley, brother of Richard Daley, mayor of Chicago, and Congressman Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat who worked with President Bush to support the NAFTA trade agreement.

In what would be a stunning move, Mr Clinton has considered replacing the Attorney General Janet Reno, not greatly admired at the White House, with William Weld, the popular Republican Governor of Massachussetts who unsuccessfully challenged for a Senate seat last month.

Personnel olive-branches have been welcomed by Republicans. But it is in policy that the new bipartisanship will be truly measured - on a daunting array of issues including education and welfare reform and the repair of federal healthcare and social security, essential for a balanced budget.

Mr Clinton's embrace of the Republican proposal to balance the budget by 2002 was his most spectacular step to the centre in the 1996 campaign. Yesterday, he renewed that pledge amid greater optimism that the parties can strike a deal to eliminate the deficit - $107bn (pounds 67bn) in fiscal 1996, the smallest in a generation.

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