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That Clinton Fortitude

THE crackle you hear is the sound of an activist president. It's a president in action, continually coming up with new ideas, pushing new programs and seeking to get something done.

The American people haven't heard anything quite like it since the days of Lyndon Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, both of whom were notably successful activists.

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President Clinton certainly is keeping us interested. There's his health-care plan alone, which is sure to change our lives. It has so many facets, and it is so terribly complicated. And - we all are asking - will it really make us better off and, even more important, how much is it going to cost us?

Then there's the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Labor leaders say it will shift jobs to Mexico. Mr. Clinton, carrying forward on an initiative started by President Bush, assures us that in the long run it will bring about more jobs. The public also finds it difficult to unravel these complexities.

And then there's the government - reform effort - bedazzling just about everyone.

While all this has been going on, Clinton has pushed through a program that permits students to pay off their college loans by performing public service. Then there's a Clinton plan for, as he has put it, ``ending welfare as we know it in our lifetime.'' That's on the horizon.

All this is in the wake of that mighty and tumultuous struggle in which the president, by the narrowest of margins, was able to put a budget in place that will reduce the deficit somewhat, while keeping the liberals' social agenda pretty much in place. New taxes were directed mainly at the rich. But Republicans were warning that this was only the beginning - that the middle-income people would be next in line for big taxes.

After being on the verge of disaster and being saved by a single vote in each House of Congress, Clinton remains on the cusp of rejection by Congress and the public.

Whatever this president turns out to be, he certainly is growing in office. During the campaign of last year, it was difficult to visualize this young, rather brash fellow as president. Already, it seems, Clinton has stretched himself considerably.

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But Clinton remains a big risk-taker. All activist presidents are. However, both Johnson and Roosevelt had voters and congresses that were much more behind them as they crafted radical social change. As an Arkansas governor, Clinton was regarded by many of his critics as a big gambler when it came to the way he dealt with problems. There's no doubt about it: He does seem willing to continually risk his career against great odds as he seeks to work his will.

It was Speaker Tom Foley who reminded us at a Monitor breakfast that there's another name for such risk taking. It's called ``courage.'' It does take a lot of fortitude to push forward with programs where the chances are so high for defeat.

NAFTA, of course, will need help from Republicans if it is to be passed. Because it's passage had become so chancy a rumor was beginning to go around Washington: that Clinton would wait until after he had dealt with health care, which may take months and months, before moving forward with the trade pact.

But the speaker said this report was false. Congress, he said, would be dealing with both of these highly controversial proposals at the same time.

So this activist president is boldly moving ahead to take on the giants. Is he bold? Or is he reckless? We shall see. But one thing is sure. This high-wire performer certainly has guts.

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