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A Leader in Mean Times

Clinton has been able to take steam out of the harsh political counterrevolution

Sixty years ago, in his second inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt let the nation know the direction in which he intended to take the New Deal. "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little," he declared.

Mr. Roosevelt's egalitarian emphasis was consistent with the way he had campaigned. He had not tried to minimize the differences between himself and his opposition. As he told a New York City audience on the eve of the 1936 election, "I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master."

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As President Clinton begins his second term, the first Democrat since Roosevelt to win reelection, it is clear that such an unqualified commitment to egalitarianism is not going to be part of his administration or his rhetoric. It is a mistake, however, to use the FDR comparison to write Mr. Clinton off as a president who knows how to tell voters what they want to hear but can't govern with any consistency.

Roosevelt was elected during hard times, and his task, while daunting, was unmistakable. He had to get a nation that was experiencing massive unemployment back to work and put a safety net under those who had been cut adrift by the economy and had no means of support.

Clinton, by contrast, has come to power in a far more ambiguous period. It is mean times, rather than hard times, that he's had to face. We are not in the midst of a Great Depression so much as a period in which a majority of the electorate sees itself confronting downward mobility and has reacted by turning inward. In the 1930s the middle class saw the poor as the hard-working Joads of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." In the 1990s they see the poor as the low IQ underclass of Charles Murray's and the late Richard J. Herrnstein's "The Bell Curve."

Save ourselves and those like us

The security we once derived from a cold war that defined our enemies, an economy that offered each generation a brighter future, and a civil rights movement that gave us moral purpose is gone, replaced by the belief that it no longer makes sense to act as if we share the same fate. Our best option, we now imagine, is to save ourselves and those like us on the basis of a lifeboat ethics that rewards ruthlessness.

The negative side of this new meanness is easy to see. More prisons. More police. Less welfare. Decaying public schools. But the positive side is even more telling. It is fortress America with gated suburbs, private schools, and private security forces. For an increasing percentage of us, the obligations of nationhood are simply a burden.

Clinton's task has been to keep this meanness from getting worse, but unlike Roosevelt, who could count on large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and the kind of electoral mandate that in 1936 enabled him to carry all but two states, he has had to rely primarily on his own resources. His popular support - 43 percent in 1992 and 49 percent in 1996 - has always been shaky, and even during the two years when his party controlled Congress, it was never especially loyal to him.

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The president and the 'Contract'

What makes Clinton's first term noteworthy is that he was able to take the steam out of the harsh political counterrevolution that by 1994 had come to be embodied in the Contract with America. By the 1996 election, supporters of the contract had been dealt defeat after defeat and were on the defensive. From abortion to gun control they were the ones who seemed out of sync with the country on the values issues and who had their legislative program curtailed. The minimum wage went up. Cuts in Medicare were stopped. There was even a federal law requiring health care providers to insure mothers and their newborns for a two-day rather than a one-day stay in the hospital after delivery.

Unlike Federal Deposit Insurance or Social Security or the Tennessee Valley Authority, this is not a record of achievement that inspires awe. But it is a record that in the face of the proposed alternatives makes a difference. The fast-food worker trying to get by on a minimum wage knows what this difference means.

There are no awards for such a legacy, especially considering the concessions on welfare and the balanced budget that were made in order to achieve it. Clinton won't go down as a president who steered us through an era of breakthrough change in which we became a more compassionate nation. But because of Clinton there is a better chance that when such a breakthrough era comes, we will be able to take advantage of it. We won't find ourselves in a position in which all we can do is make up for the ground we lost in the '90s.

From this future perspective Clinton's willingness to compromise and tack with the political winds won't seem heroic, but it will seem admirable - the best a caring president could have done in mean times.

* Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., and the author of the forthcoming "The Triumph of Meanness: America's War Against Its Better Self" (Houghton Mifflin).

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