House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) was dispassionately explaining the need for bipartisanship in budget negotiations with the Bush administration recently when Jean Barnard elbowed her way into the circle of reporters who were interviewing Foley in his home district.

"The Democratic Party should be more aggressive," politely lectured Barnard, 71, a former mayor of Mill Valley, Calif. "The Republicans have had us cowed."

It was a complaint that Foley is hearing more and more often from his fellow Democrats.

A year ago yesterday he took over the helm of a House that had been torn apart by the ethics investigation that brought down his predecessor, Jim Wright (D-Tex.). Since then, the 49th speaker is almost universally credited with having restored a sense of normalcy and a standard of civility to the House. He is also well on the way to presiding over a productive second session of the 101st Congress with the House having already passed major legislation on child care, clean air, rights for the disabled and family and medical leave.

But Foley is also being buffeted by the swirling crosswinds in his own party. Presiding over an eclectic crew of Democratic lawmakers who brawl among themselves over the direction of their party, Foley -- though still personally revered -- has become the target of internal sniping for his laissez-faire leadership style.

Few House Democrats are willing to speak on the record in criticizing Foley, whose position as speaker makes him one of the most powerful men in Washington. But privately liberals grumble angrily that Foley is indecisive, lets the Senate push him around and lacks the steel for the kind of confrontations with the White House and House Republicans that they say are needed to differentiate the two parties and give the Democrats a clear identity. Moderates and conservatives complain openly that Foley caves in too readily to the "screamers" of the party's liberal wing and exposes them to politically perilous votes with a legislative agenda dictated by labor and other party constituencies.

Ironically, the criticisms are often aimed at the very qualities that other Democrats most valued in Foley as majority leader when they chafed under the sometimes dictatorial and corrosively partisan regime of Wright. Foley's patience and talent for building consensus in a diverse party, his openness to all points of view, and his instinct for anticipating long-term unforeseen consequences are now being cited as hindrances to sharpening the image and platform of his congressionally based party.

At times, there is even a scattered yearning for the good old days under Wright when the fiery Texan would impetuously bang on President Ronald Reagan and almost single-handedly craft fiscal and foreign policy from the speaker's office.

Yet Foley and his many defenders say that the critics have failed to adapt to changed circumstances and new players. They argue that an accommodating, popular president at the height of his power cannot be dealt with in the same fashion as was the ideologue Reagan in his final two years, when his presidency was weakened by scandal and his authority eroded as his term neared its end.

"Tip O'Neill had a saying," Foley said. " 'Never kick a man when he's up.' Some of my colleagues don't believe that."

In addition, say Foley's admirers, much of the criticism is a byproduct of Democratic frustration with President Bush's seemingly impregnable popularity and with the absence of any clear Democratic presidential contenders to challenge him. It is unrealistic, they say, to expect Foley and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) to play that role.

And finally, the defenders say that Foley and his new leadership team are still finding their footing, dealing with a legislative agenda that is partly inherited and with Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) not yet in full command of the political strategist role previously played by Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), who also resigned last year.

"People have unfair expectations given the playing field we are on," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.). "If you're in the first or second year of a presidential cycle, absent external events the president is always going to get the lion's share of what he wants."

If many Democrats feel it is too early to review Foley's performance, others are not so reticent. The New Republic's Fred Barnes, in an article entitled "Leaders to Follow," labeled Foley and Mitchell "the weakest congressional leaders since John McCormack and Carl Albert."

"The Democrats are not an opposition party," wrote investment banker Felix Rohatyn in The New York Review of Books. "They share power, they do not seek it. Seeking power requires putting forward alternatives to the voters and competing for their allegiance. . . . The Democratic leaders in the Congress . . . have formed something close to a coalition government with a Republican administration."

At a luncheon with reporters yesterday, Foley said he rejects the advice of those who say he should be more partisan.

"I keep having people say to me, 'You ought to be the constant daily scourge of George Bush,' that I ought to get up in the morning and figure out what I can say or do to embarrass the president or obstruct the president or whatever," he said. "That's not my concept of the job. . . . There are issues on which you have to stand even if you fail, but for the most part I would rather have a successful and important achievement in cooperation with the executive branch than just have a political issue."

In addition to his preference for cooperation over confrontation, Foley has often expressed a deep respect for the office of the presidency and seldom has voiced criticism of Bush even when prodded.

But this attitude and Foley's reluctance to adopt a more partisan tone is deeply disappointing to many House Democrats. The promise of Foley's pointed response to Bush's State of the Union in January, they say, has evaporated just as surely as the 60 pounds the speaker has shed in recent months.

Critics offer numerous examples of wasted political opportunities:Foley last year gave in to the Senate and White House on the savings and loan cleanup legislation, permitting much of the cost to be placed off-budget. That action, say critics, erodes Democratic chances of wrapping the most costly scandal in American history around Bush's neck. Foley allowed an internal disagreement between House committees over child care legislation to drag on so long that Democrats frittered away their advantage on an issue popular with voters. Only after two key Democrats began secretly negotiating with the White House did Foley step in to dictate a settlement. Foley and other Democratic leaders failed to pounce on the opportunity presented by the proposal of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) to roll back Social Security payroll taxes, allowing a chance for Democrats to highlight growing tax inequities to slip away. Foley let Republicans get away with not presenting Bush's budget for consideration on the House floor, depriving Democratic House candidates of a chance to hammer their opposition next fall for voting for a spending plan that contained deep cuts in popular domestic programs.

The budget episode sparked an angry, near-insurrection the following day in the Democratic whip organization's meeting. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) began by reading the closing budget speech of GOP whip Newt Gingrich in which the Georgia Republican taunted Democrats by equating their budget with "the Dukakis platform . . . the Mondale platform . . . the Carter presidency . . . {and} the McGovern movement," and lectured them on hypocritically wanting defense cuts while crying about reductions in their own districts.

Outraged at being denied the chance to savage Bush's budget as Gingrich had savaged theirs, Democratic lawmakers erupted in frustration at Foley.

"People are asking themselves, are they {the leadership} at all capable of playing hardball," one Democrat said after that meeting. "What they don't appreciate is that Republicans get out of bed every day and come to work figuring out how to eat our lunch. This is about winning or losing."

"We lost an opportunity to graphically show which party has its act together," Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said. "You have to articulate the differences and allow the body to work so they are clearly shown."

Foley's deeply ingrained caution, and his penchant for laboriously working out all the possible permutations and hidden pitfalls of any course of action, have left some Democrats seething for more decisive leadership.

"As much as people resented Wright, they liked to win," said one Democrat. "Under Foley, we're not going to lose too many, but we aren't going to try much. . . . Even if you lose a couple, so what? Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times, but people remember the 714 home runs."

Groping for a symbol of Foley's reluctance to use his authority as speaker to lead his party, a western congressman seized on the furnishings in Foley's office. "There's no desk," he said. "It's a conversation pit. This is an office where you have conversation, not an office where you give haircuts. The consequence is nobody gets a haircut and everybody is a free agent."

Both moderates and liberals fault Foley for failing to articulate a vision of where the Democratic Party should go. "When I first came here," one liberal said, "the Republicans seemed to be the ones with the tin ear. That has changed. Now we seem to be the ones who can't develop the music or sing in harmony."

"I found Jim Wright as hard to work with as anyone in my life, but at least he set an agenda," a moderate Democrat added.

Moderates also accuse Foley and other Democratic leaders of ruling according to the dictates of outside liberal constituencies. "They are fulfilling commitments to the liberal wing and outside groups," said Rep. H. Martin Lancaster (D-N.C.).

Even with all the criticism, however, Foley is given enormous credit for putting the House back on an even keel after the resignations of Wright and Coelho, particularly by Republicans who bitterly resented Wright. "People are very happy with him in our party," said Rep. Vin Weber (Minn.), a leading GOP conservative. "He is fulfilling the traditional role of the speaker."

Foley also built up a deep reservoir of good will for his adroit handling of last year's congressional pay raise and ethics reform package. With that accomplished, predicted Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), Foley will be raising his profile as a party leader and will be increasingly willing to take on the GOP. "He realizes," Fazio said, "that the future of our party is at stake."

But other Democratic partisans say the jury is still out. "People feel positively about the interlude," Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said. "The question is, is it an interlude or a permanent style of leadership?"