THE first 100 days of the new administration ends Thursday, and a media struggle is on to form a picture of the emerging Clinton White House. Last week, which President Clinton agrees was "a bad week," the president had to withdraw his economic stimulus package from Capitol Hill, had to answer difficult questions about the fiasco in Waco, and fell somewhat in the polls.
The start is "undistinguished," some pundits say. The White House argues it has laid a foundation for change, even while Mr. Clinton admits he has overextended himself and has not always played his hand well with Congress.
Too much is made of the first hundred days of a presidency. That marker was first established in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt pushed the New Deal legislation through a special session of Congress. Since that time, no president has come close to such an early achievement. The way the political system grinds out its work in 1993, with the vastly increased number of appointments and the ethical tests involved, it is unrealistic to expect a defining picture of the White House so early.
Clinton has taken on an ambitious agenda: gays in the military, a forest summit, Russian aid, health care, and genocide in Bosnia.
His loss of the stimulus package last week was unfortunate; he misjudged how the Senate works. Part of the blame falls on Senate Democratic leaders, particularly Robert Byrd, whose imperious floor tactics virtually forced the Republicans to close ranks in a show of unity.
One hundred days out the important questions for Clinton are: How well and how quickly is he learning? Has he taken any steps that will irreparably hurt him?
The answer to the first is that Clinton is learning fast, particularly in the area of foreign policy. A year ago Clinton was a relative unknown from Arkansas; last week he helped light the torch at the Holocaust Museum and answered credibly on the Balkans. That is a long distance to travel.
The answer to the second is that there has been no Kennedyesque Bay of Pigs, and no Carteresque alienation of Congress.
However, Clinton must get better guidance in building bridges with the Republicans.
The time to "focus like a laser" on the White House will be August or September. By that time his appointments, which have been made too slowly, will be in place.
Moreover, he will have begun to establish the principles by which he will govern in an era vastly different from that overseen by Ronald Reagan and continued by George Bush.