Leading Article: A touch of envy is in order

Click to follow
LUCKY Americans] After the 12 years of the Reagan-Bush Republican era, tomorrow's inauguration of Bill Clinton as President gives the United States one of those fresh starts that democratic systems desperately need - and for which human nature craves. On this side of the Atlantic we may be forgiven a powerful twinge of envy for the cleansing of the Augean stables that is taking place across the water. It is arguably no bad thing, too, that the great revolving door exercise includes senior officials of the politicised breed for which we have no real equivalent.

In Britain, after nearly 14 years of the Thatcher-Major era, there is something of the same sense of public disenchantment with the nation's leadership that led to George Bush's defeat. But we have had no similar change since 1979, and no relief is in prospect, apart from an upturn in the economy. Willy-nilly we are sentenced to four more years of the same, with the Government showing all the signs of tiredness, insensitivity to the public mood and proneness to lapses of morality to which long tenure leads; and the prospect offered by the current Opposition lifts few spirits.

It is true that Mr Clinton will have great difficulty in fulfilling the high hopes placed in him. His gifts include great energy, determination and staying power allied to formidable intelligence and (not always a concomitant) a great willingness to learn. But his ability to make difficult decisions and choices has yet to be tested. Ruthless he undoubtedly can be, but no one knows whether he will deploy that attribute against the right people and interest groups as they crowd in upon him. Vested interests are well represented in his cabinet, of whose 18 members 13, including himself, are lawyers.

It was on the understanding that he would give priority to the domestic agenda that the Governor of Arkansas was elected. He is committed to reforming a very expensive and inequitable health care system that aggravates the serious federal budget deficit. No less important, American standards of education and training have fallen well behind those of commercial competitors (especially in the Far East) and desperately need investment: it is only by re-skilling the US that the new President will be able to build on the incipient economic recovery. For such investment, extra revenue will have to be found - and quickly: intermediate congressional elections will soon make members reluctant to be associated with unpopular measures such as a much-needed petrol tax. The window of opportunity is small.

Yet however determined Mr Clinton is to give precedence to domestic social issues, he cannot escape from the President's role as chief formulator of foreign policy and commander-in-chief of the armed services. Armageddon aspects aside, that burden was lighter when the world was stuck in Cold War paralysis. As the last three years have shown, all is now flux. It is daunting enough to inherit such decisions as how to undermine Saddam Hussein; whether to intervene militarily in Bosnia; how long to keep US troops in Somalia; how to resolve the Gatt trade talks deadlock; and so on. Fresh crises demanding tough decisions will arise, and probably not singly. Mr Clinton seems unusually well equipped to tackle them. But ultimately it is his character that will be on the line.