"What do you think? Can she do it?"

The questions, a blend of doubt and hope, are heard all over town these days. Can Sharon Pratt Dixon, the city's new mayor, keep her pledge to reduce the size of the District's bloated government without coming off as an enemy of the bureaucracy she has to run? Can she, through some combination of efficiency and an increased federal payment, rescue the city from a projected budget deficit of $300 million?

Can she stop the slaughter of our children, improve the schools and reduce the crime that is destroying many of our communities? Can she lead us away from the polarization that, if it has yet not turned us into warring camps, has at least made it difficult for us to talk to one another across lines of race and class? Can she even attract people of the caliber needed to set the District on a more hopeful course?

The new mayor herself has raised a number of the questions, and her all-purpose answer, taken from her miraculous campaign, is "Yes, we will."

"What do you think? Can she do it?" In some important ways, she's already doing it. Her early statements regarding budget savings indicate a willingness to make the kind of hard choices that could win congressional support for a higher federal payment. Few doubt that she has the skill, energy and savvy to work with the D.C. Council and its sensible new chairman, John Wilson. People who know about such things say her newly chosen city manager is tough-minded and able.

But as important as these things are, they aren't enough to make Washington what it ought to be -- what Dixon has promised it will be. Washingtonians may worry about such things as governmental efficiency, but what worries us more are questions of safety and civility -- the sense that in too many parts of town the criminals have taken over, that racial animosity has become a way of life, that the decline of the old values has produced a generation of children both despairing and dangerous.

Here is my reading of the campaign that catapulted Dixon from dark-horse candidate to the mayor's suite. When the voters thought the best they could expect was a reasonably honest government, relatively free of cronyism and acceptably competent -- when the hope was for someone with the administrative skills of Marion Barry without the former mayor's personal problems -- Dixon looked like a sure loser.

But then we started to hear her promise of something besides professional competency and personal probity.

She would restore discipline to government, but she would also restore grace and tolerance and safety and hope. She would render the city fiscally sound, but she would also render it livable -- the way it used to be. And the voters crossed their fingers and decided to take a chance.

Can she do it? The heart wants to answer "yes," but the head is full of doubt. Dixon can establish herself as mayor of all the people, but she cannot make the people rise above selfish interest to embrace the good of the city. She can force the police department to sounder tactics, but she cannot make our young people stop killing each other. She can reorder budget priorities to reflect more concern with education, but she cannot give our children the hope that produces academic exertion. She can see to the equitable distribution of city services, but she cannot knit us into a mutually supportive community.

She can lead, but only to the degree that the rest of us share her dream for the city and are willing to follow her lead. She can urge us to moral and civic health, but we must want to be healed. It is absolutely reasonable to hold her responsible for putting the government in order, but for the more important task of putting our community in order, the relevant question is: Can we do it?

Can we put aside our racial strife, reestablish pride in our city and mount a campaign to rescue our young people from the drugs and violence and hopelessness to which too many of them have succumbed?

I like the answer Dixon supplied in her inaugural address, that "nothing is beyond our reach, especially if we really reach out to one another {to} plant strong and lasting anchors in every neighborhood and community {and} put hope back in the hearts of our children.

"To this we must say, 'Yes we will!' "