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Clinton Hints at Pursuing a Less Liberal Agenda


WASHINGTON — Sounding frustrated and weary, President Clinton complained Thursday about the judgment of angry voters in the midterm elections and sent signals that he intends to move farther to the right--away from the liberal wing of his party.

In a notably downbeat assessment, Clinton told a Georgetown University audience that in "normal times" he and other Democrats would have gotten greater credit. "But this is no ordinary time," Clinton said.

A confused and worried public was reacting in Tuesday's election landslide for the Republican Party to personal anxieties and to governmental processes that they found "messy," and often "almost revolting," he said.

Foretelling a likely shift to the right, Clinton suggested that the election taught him that he needs to refocus on the centrist agenda that thrust him to national prominence. He returned to phrases and ideas of his 1992 campaign, saying: "With all my strength, I will work to pursue the new Democrat agenda." He has used the term "new Democrat" sparingly since his election.

Clinton's comments differed sharply in tone from his remarks at a Wednesday press conference, when he said that he would stoically abide by the judgment of voters who he thought only wanted government to move successfully and more quickly.

In outlining his accomplishments, Clinton stressed actions that have greatest luster with conservative and moderate voters: cutting the federal deficit, shrinking government, deregulating business, fighting crime and reforming welfare.

Although Clinton has pursued social legislation that would expand the role of government, often reaching out to liberal elements of the party in the process, he described his vision of government Thursday in limited terms: "The primary job of government is to empower citizens to make the most of our lives and then to insist on responsible behavior in return."

He recalled that during his presidential campaign, "I argued that the main job of government is not to solve all our problems. In this day and age, it simply can't do that."

Clinton acknowledged that he was taken aback by the election outcome, saying with a rueful laugh that, while he knew there had been difficulties, "until Tuesday, I thought we'd made a pretty good beginning."

Defending his Democratic allies, he said that he "regretted particularly the loss of those who were trying to take the country in the direction the voters said they wanted"--toward smaller government, a reduced deficit, deregulation and a more responsive Congress.

The speech, at the university Clinton attended as an undergraduate, was originally planned as a major foreign policy address to kick off a nine-day trip to Asia for a meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group.

Foreign policy concerns were largely overshadowed by the election results, although Clinton did outline his trade agenda and in doing so, used the term "fair trade," which signals a more aggressive stance in trade negotiations. It was another term from his 1992 campaign that had largely fallen by the wayside since his election.

Clinton's Asia trip, which begins today, is part of what the White House has described as a three-part push for action on trade liberalization. The other elements are Clinton's fight for congressional approval of the new world trade agreement, which will come to a vote in Congress later this month, and his trip to Miami in December for a Summit of the Americas that will chart ways to increase trade throughout the hemisphere.

Clinton has come under pressure from Congress and human rights groups to press firmly for human rights reforms in China and Indonesia when he meets with leaders of those countries Monday and Wednesday. Human rights advocates have publicized the treatment of dissidents in China, as well as actions in Indonesia against organized labor, the press and the East Timor minority.

Clinton said that those issues will be discussed at the meeting, but was careful in his remarks to avoid giving offense to the Asian leaders.

"I will be doing everything I can to be frank in terms of our differences," he said. But he added: "I don't think we have to choose between increasing trade and fostering human rights and open societies."

Though Clinton has focused on domestic issues his first two years, setbacks for some of his major domestic initiatives are elevating foreign policy to a more prominent place on his agenda. The election results appear to have raised doubts in the minds of some foreign leaders about Clinton's political strength and longevity as well as whether the world trade accord, which is the cornerstone of future trade liberalization, will win approval.

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