Leading Article: The rhetoric of change

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The Independent Online
IF IN HIS inaugural address America's new President was trying to please the maximum number of people, give no hostages to fortune and provide some spiritual uplift, Bill Clinton succeeded. His speech touched briefly on most of those social and economic woes with which during his election campaign he had promised to grapple, from sinking incomes and rising health-care costs to bankruptcies and crime. It paid due attention to the need for American leadership in the world. And it did not stint with those touches of sentimental rhetoric that are special to American political culture.

The ratio of such flights to meaningful content was perhaps on the high side. What European president or prime minister could bring himself to say: 'Anyone who has ever watched a child's eyes wander into sleep knows what posterity is'; or could refer to the conviction that his country's 'long heroic journey must go for ever upwards'. Even in the Welsh valleys that would be over the top.

Change was the connecting theme, as it was in his election campaign. America needed change and renewal, yet must not be engulfed by changes in the world as the old order passed, leaving a freer but less stable world. The urgent question, he said, was 'whether we can make change our friend and not our enemy'. He did well to make the point, which would strike many Americans as novel, that 'there is no clear division today between what is foreign and what is domestic', citing economic and environmental issues, the Aids crisis and the arms race.

A notable omission was the need to raise American standards of education and training. It is not just the passing of Communism that poses a challenge to American leadership, but also the rise in educational standards and productivity in South-east Asia and the Far East, from Thailand through eastern China and Taiwan to Korea. America's preoccupation with Japanese competition tends to blind it to the sheer geographical extent of the phenomenon. Of course, Mr Clinton is deeply conscious of this challenge, as he is deeply conscious of just about everything: a more knowledgeable and better- briefed new President there can rarely have been. The danger is not that he will leave genuinely important tasks untackled, but that he will spread himself too thinly.

If inaugural speeches set the tone of a presidency, yesterday's points towards a president who, while making ritual obeisance to the need for sacrifice, wants to please as many people as possible. That is in itself an unimpeachably democratic urge. The danger is that it might make Mr Clinton shrink from decisions that involve inflicting pain: such as raising indirect taxes, cutting defence projects that employ thousands of workers or taking on vested interest groups such as the handgun lobby. The new President may have a clear set of priorities for action, but he gave no glimpse of them in this speech.

None the less, he starts his term with the hopes of much of the world upon him and a great deal in his favour: charm, articulacy, a remarkable ability to think on his feet, a rare grasp of issues, a formidably intelligent wife, and in Al Gore a gifted and in many ways complementary Vice-President. With the outside world riven by ethnic wars, some of which may endanger American interests, he will find it hard to give domestic problems the intensity of attention that he promised himself and the electorate. Yet, as he said yesterday, domestic and foreign issues are inextricably intertwined. An America that has not conquered its more glaring social ills will be unable to provide the world with the quality of leadership it so badly needs, and which only the United States has the power to give.