WASHINGTON - After a rocky start, President Clinton has begun to demonstrate the kind of leadership that people like to see in their chief executive.

When Clinton ended the strike at American Airlines by persuading the flight attendants and management to submit to binding arbitration, he did more than settle a labor dispute. He used his office to solve, at least temporarily, a problem that threatened to disrupt Thanksgiving travel and rip a hole in the airline industry.

It was a case of government lending a helping hand, and of an activist President getting his way. The television pictures of elated flight attendants, grateful to be off the picket lines, contrasted sharply with the image that defined Ronald Reagan's early presidency when he fired the air traffic controllers in 1981.

Clinton's success in ending the strike came right after the vote in Congress to adopt the North American Free Trade Agreement, a huge victory, against the odds that showed he can still command the high ground in domestic and international economic policy.

There is little doubt that Clinton can now claim some solid accomplishments after stumbling out of the gate in the dispute over gays in the military and the defeat of his economic stimulus program in the Senate.

According to a Congressional Quarterly statistical review, Clinton prevailed on 88% of the House and Senate floor votes on which he took a position, a success rate close to that achieved by Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 and equaling that of Lyndon Johnson in 1964. If Americans voted for Clinton to break the gridlock with Congress, the President delivered.

On the biggest issue of all, the budget, Clinton prevailed with a $500 billion deficit reduction program. While many economists remain skeptical of the spending cuts required under the law, the new taxes will start to bite Jan. 1, and federal agencies remain under pressure to trim their payrolls and become more efficient.

There is also little argument that the new tax law makes good on a Clinton promise to increase taxes on the wealthy and provide some relief to the poor by significantly raising the earned income tax credit. The National League of Cities estimates that a single mother with two children living in rental housing who earns $19,000 will have her tax liability cut from $577 to nearly zero next year.

Clinton got Congress to go along with a national service program, family leave, motor voter registration, and the Brady handgun bill, which Clinton signed into law last week. The House and Senate also passed different versions of a major crime hill, which now awaits action by conferees when Congress reconvenes. Welfare reform is also high on the agenda.

Perhaps most important, the economy continues to improve and generate jobs, although not as quickly as administration officials say they would like. Consumer spending has picked up, business investment in plant and equipment is strong, and the unemployment rate is dropping.

Interest rates remain low, helping many first-time home buyers and anyone else seeking credit.

A lot of this may not be entirely Clinton's doing. Critics say much of the legislation passed by the Democratic Congress was old inventory, just waiting for a chance to be dusted off and shipped to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Nafta was a creation of the Republicans. And interest rates have been kept low by expectations that the economy won't boom.

Still, the way the historians keep the books, the President gets the credit or the blame for whatever comes along during his term. In Clinton's case, at least for the first year he chalked up some runs on the scoreboard.

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