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Clinton's Challenge: Reviving Trust in Government

Public climate poses a formidable task for his second term

January 20, 1997

In solemn ceremony, Bill Clinton today begins his second term by promising to faithfully execute the office of president and to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Ah, were it all as simple as the words drafted for the oath of office in 1787 by the framers of the Constitution. At least Clinton enters his second term with the world mostly at peace and the nation in relatively good economic health.

But Clinton will have to build his promised bridge to the 21st century as the head of a politically divided government fraught with ongoing ethics crises and bitter inter-party bickering. Perhaps never have the American people harbored such widespread lack of respect for government and public officials. Clinton himself remains under the cloud of Whitewater and other matters. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is a leader weakened by his own ethics controversy.

The Senate today is a far more partisan and less deliberative body than it was just a few years back. And neither party can claim much of a mandate from the November election. Thus the political landscape does not seem conducive to a productive 105th Congress. And Clinton, the first Democrat to begin a second elected term in 60 years, faces the historical fact that presidents tend to fare poorly in second terms.

For Clinton, that is the dilemma--and the opportunity. If there is to be a real new beginning today, Clinton needs to challenge his own administration and the new Congress to begin rebuilding public trust in government. If there is a mandate, it is that the voters want the people's business to get done openly and fairly, without deadlock or partisan rancor.

The president has to exert strong, consistent leadership. And however bad his own problems might become, he must avoid the recourse of some beleaguered presidents--that of retreating into a White House bunker.

Clinton does not have to again ask the public to vote for him. Still, it is important for him to travel about the nation and meet with citizens, listening to their concerns and building a consensus for rational, workable programs. He needs to be out front, candid, explaining what needs to be done and why.

The inaugural is an occasion for symbolism, for soaring themes and pledges of unity. That is appropriate. For all its blemishes, the American Experiment still thrives. The leaders on the podium may be Democrats and Republicans, but first of all they are Americans.

Today, Bill Clinton begins forging the final chapter of the American presidency in the 20th century. The best legacy he could seek is that he helped raise the level of political discourse in America and began rebuilding the citizens' trust in their leaders.

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