Clinton regains his footing after an early stumble: First 100 hours

THERE was just one moment when President Bill Clinton looked at a loss last week. During his open-house reception in the White House he had a word for everybody, until one man clasped his hand and asked loudly: 'In the hall of seven stars and seven candlesticks, can I speak in the tongue of God?' Mr Clinton looked blank as the man added, 'The Lord hath spoken through the Messiah,' before attendants led him away.

When another guest stumbled over the Persian carpet where Mr Clinton was standing, the President had it fastened down, and stared fixedly at the man taping the edge of it to the floor as reporters shouted questions about Zoe Baird, whose nomination for Attorney General was foundering in the Senate. His deep interest in the position of the rug was taken as a sign that the White House was distancing itself from the Baird nomination.

His action also underlined that the priorities of the new administration are intensely political. When George Bush was elected president in 1988, he abruptly announced that the campaign was over, as if it had been a distasteful episode, then fought a damaging and ultimately losing battle for the nomination of John Tower as Defense Secretary.

President Clinton last week did the exact opposite, accepting Mrs Baird's withdrawal immediately and taking all the blame. This defused any sense that he had lost a battle with Congress and any belief that he saw his nominee's employment of two Peruvian ilegal immigrants as a trivial offence.

The popular outcry against Mrs Baird illustrates a change in the US political mood since the 1980s. The antagonism towards her proves that the resentment against an elite protected by money from the realities of daily life, which helped put Mr Clinton in the White House, is still very strong. If Mr Clinton had tried to force her nomination through, he would have badly dented his populist reputation.

The President has been surprisingly little damaged by the Baird row, his conciliatory words about Saddam Hussein (immediately reversed) or his flip-flop over returning refugees to Haiti. He is still enjoying a honeymoon period with voters, and he has yet to produce his health reform package, which he promised within his first 100 days. Given that polls show that voters worry more about health than jobs, taxes or the economy, his performance here is critical.

The most radical development in Mr Clinton's policies since the election is that Hillary Clinton is supervising the development of a health plan that would include tough government price controls over hospitals and doctors. The President was reportedly worried that his health-care advisers had failed to produce a plan that would give health coverage to all Americans - including the 36 million who have no health insurance - without adding appreciably to the budget deficit.

The medical and pharmaceutical lobbies are certain to fight proposals to put a ceiling on prices, but they are unlikely to win in face of the popular desire for reform and support for Mr Clinton from big insurance companies.

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