The First Quarter

I have to admit, it's nice to wake up in the morning without half expecting the White House to launch another intervention in a Third World country or proudly announce another cut in a domestic social program that will make people in my neighborhood even poorer. It is indeed a breath of fresh air to have a president who argues against nuclear testing and for universal health care coverage. And it may be that the unprecedented role being played by Hillary Rodham Clinton will make a more lasting contribution to fundamental questions of equality than most of the administration's other accomplishments.

When Angolan thug Jonas Savimbi violated the results of his country's first free elections, he expected the usual help from his friends in the White House, but the new president told him to get lost. Jean-Bertrand Aristide must have been equally surprised when the new resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue seemed genuinely interested in restoring Haitian democracy instead of finding another American reason for supporting the "stability" of his impoverished nation's brutal military leaders. Perhaps most important to me is to have someone in the White House who seems genuinely moved and anguished by the poverty and violence experienced by inner-city children, instead of a president who always seems to talk about such things as if he's speaking only to white suburban voters.

Yet, there is real trouble in the Clinton presidency at the end of its first year. It began in the budget debate, which produced a series of such embarrassing compromises that no one was happy. Fortunately for Clinton, economic indicators are slowly improving, but the economy has hardly been turned around as per campaign promises. Neither the structural nor, I would contend, moral issues of our economic life were ever really confronted.

What has emerged in the first quarter of this presidency is Clinton the compromiser rather than Clinton the visionary. On issue after issue, the myriad of vested special interests that control this town have successfully intervened to make promises into pittances. A pattern has been set: A lofty goal is stated (often from the election campaign); eventually a proposal is offered to achieve about one-twentieth of the original idea; and after wrangling in the Congress and the media, one-fiftieth of the vision is approved - subject to further modifications.


SOME WOULD SAY this is just the inevitable compromise of politicswhich is, after all, "the art of the possible." But something deeper may be at work here - a president who seems more comfortable at trying to please everyone and be successful than one who knows the heart of his convictions and principles and is willing to stick by them.

A revised program of student loan repayment instead of an exciting new vision of voluntary service simply does not set the country in a new direction, which is what we so desperately need. E.J. Dionne writes in The Washington Post, "Clinton no longer looks like he's really going to change things." Most significant, what is least changed is the cynicism and distrust that most Americans still feel toward their government. To change that would require a kind of political leadership that consistently articulates and demonstrates a new vision and agenda, and is even willing to lose some political battles in the process.

At this point in history it would demand, too, that the new visions go beyond the now hopelessly outmoded political categories and solutions that still govern and paralyze our public discourse. Clinton has not done that yet. He is still beholden to and controlled by traditional Democratic approaches, while his Republican opponents seem to care only to discredit Clinton so as to regain power in four years. Neither side has shown the intellectual and moral courage to work together to find new and workable solutions to our most pressing problems. That is what a disgruntled electorate is still waiting to see.

Because such new political leadership would require a solid grounding in spiritual values, one hoped that the religious community would have played a prophetic role in the first year of the Clinton administration. But, unfortunately, the equally polarized religious constituencies have behaved much like the politicians.

Many conservative evangelicals have virtually identified the Clintons with the Antichrist, while liberal Protestant leaders have gushed at their new-found access to the corridors of power. One wonders how the new president might really be served by a kind of dialogue with religious leaders that encourages a serious accountability to political morality and the prophetic imagination to open up new social possibilities.

One wonders, too, whether this or any president would really want such a dialogue. In biblical language, does King David ever really want to have a serious conversation with prophet Nathan? Uncomfortable topics would come up, such as last year's bombing of Baghdad's children because of their ruler's offenses.

But there have been glimpses of real hope in this administration - when Bill Clinton remembers his campaign calls for a new covenant, when Hillary Clinton demonstrates the courage and competence that confirms a new status for women in this country that goes far beyond her husband's presidency, when Al Gore stands with religious leaders to launch new environmental initiatives, and when our children can see a government that for the first time really "looks like America." Whether those symbols yield to real substance in racial, economic, gender, and environmental justice will ultimately be the real test of this presidency. We have three quarters to go.

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"The First Quarter"
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