WASHINGTON — Last fall, President Clinton campaigned across the country arguing for "change." Today, as his Administration reaches the traditional, albeit arbitrary 100-day measuring point, he can justifiably claim to have brought about a sweeping change in the psychology and expectations of Washington.
But whether he has the ability to meet those expectations remains as much a mystery as when his quest for the presidency began.
As he demonstrated during the election season, Clinton is a superb campaigner with a seldom-matched ability to focus public attention on issues that concern him. But as he demonstrated during his 12-year tenure as chief executive of Arkansas and in his first three months as President, his actions in office often fall short of the sweeping promises that his rhetoric seems to imply.
So it is, for example, that in February, Clinton the campaigner delivered a masterful speech to the nation that rallied support for the idea of raising taxes and cutting existing programs to reduce the federal deficit.
But by April, Clinton the chief executive had backed away from some of his deficit-cutting plans, most notably a proposal to include higher fees on Western miners and ranchers. And the specifics of his tax proposals face an uncertain fate in Congress.
Campaigner Clinton helped rally international support behind new aid to Russia and thereby almost certainly contributed to President Boris N. Yeltsin's recent election in a referendum there. But Clinton the executive admits that he may not be able to win congressional approval of the new money needed to back up parts of his aid plan.
Adding to the challenge of turning his largely domestic goals into reality is the looming threat of problems such as the situation in Bosnia, which can derail the best-laid plans of any President.
Seeing their new President in action, both his strengths and his weaknesses, the public has responded with an unusually high degree of activism but also a high degree of polarization.
Telephone calls and letters pour into Washington by the hundreds of thousands, testimonials to his power to stir voters; but in recent polls, both Clinton's positive and his negative ratings have risen.
In February, for example, Republican pollster Ed Goeas and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake asked voters if they thought Clinton "keeps his promises." At the time, 39% thought that was a good description of the President and 48% thought it was not. By last week, when asked the question again, 46% agreed and 52% did not. The percentage expressing neutrality had dropped from 13% to 3%.
Similarly, increased polarization showed up in questions about whether Clinton is a strong leader, whether he fights for the middle class and whether he is too ready to raise taxes.
At the same time, the brief surge of public optimism on which Clinton rode into office has begun to fade. Voters are not nearly as pessimistic as they were during much of 1991 and 1992, but recent polls show voters growing uneasy yet again and annoyed with slow action in Washington.
The President's aides have taken to pleading for patience.
"George Bush didn't stumble in his first 100 days because he wasn't trying to move," said Clinton political adviser James Carville. "The only way not to stumble is to stand still."
"The true test of presidential leadership is not instant popularity," said Democratic Party Chairman David C. Wilhelm. "Governing is hard. Governing is difficult."
Those sentiments cannot be denied. They also do not make very good reelection slogans. As most voters know, expecting huge results after a mere three months in office makes little sense. But as Clinton aides know, the time will come when voters insist on results, not explanations.
"The President has to show that he can break gridlock," said Clinton pollster and strategist Stanley B. Greenberg. "They elected him to get things moving."
Because of that, as he moves toward a potentially difficult summer of negotiations with Congress over his budget, his health care plans and his proposals to reform the nation's campaign finance system, Clinton now faces a pivotal decision, advisers say.
Put starkly, the President must either scale back his ambitions to meet what the traditional rules of the Washington political system define as achievable, or else find a way to rewrite those rules and bend the system to his will.
"There's a clash of cultures" between the ambitious Clinton agenda and Washington's ponderous, risk-averse political system, Carville said.
The pressure to scale back comes constantly.
As Clinton put together his budget package in February, his legislative strategists repeatedly urged him to leave one or another potentially controversial item out for fear of alienating key congressional barons.