LITTLE ROCK, ARK., JAN. 14 -- With less than a week to go before his inauguration, President-elect Clinton found himself on the defensive today trying to square his rhetoric during the campaign with his statements since the election on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues.
At a news conference called to announce his White House staff -- something Clinton aides had hoped would be completed long ago -- Clinton was asked no questions about the new White House lineup. Instead, he was pummeled with questions that shared a common theme of backtracking on campaign pledges and that suggested the traditional honeymoon between the press and a new president may be over even before the inauguration.
In quick order, Clinton found himself:
Denying that he was reneging on a campaign promise to reverse the Bush administration's program of forcible return of Haitian boat people without asylum hearings.
Angrily insisting that he had been misunderstood in a New York Times interview that suggested he might be open to normalizing relations with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq if Saddam complied with United Nations resolutions.
Explaining that the American people should judge him on his progress in achieving the "big things" that he campaigned for -- improved productivity, deficit reduction, health care reform -- and should not hold him responsible for backtracking on a campaign promise to enact a middle-class tax cut.
Defending his progress in crafting an economic recovery plan, comparing his timetable with that of President Ronald Reagan 12 years ago.
When the news conference was over, Clinton's newly announced White House communications director, George Stephanopoulos, was besieged with more questions about reports that Attorney General-designate Zoe E. Baird had hired illegal aliens, efforts by Hillary Clinton's brothers to solicit corporate contributions for receptions at the inauguration, and the length of time for which Commerce Secretary-designate Ronald H. Brown will recuse himself from matters involving clients of his former law firm.
Earlier in the news conference, Clinton announced that his campaign manager, David Wilhelm, will become the new Democratic national chairman, and longtime aide Craig Smith will serve as DNC political director.
The White House staff announcements include transition deputy director Mark Gearan as deputy chief of staff; New York lawyer Bernard Nussbaum as White House counsel; close friend Bruce Lindsey as senior adviser and personnel director; and Arkansas aide Carol Rasco as domestic policy adviser.
Spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers becomes the first woman to serve as White House press secretary, but Stephanopoulos will continue to conduct the daily briefing, as he has done during the transition.
Clinton's emotions at the news conference ranged from becoming teary-eyed as his new domestic policy adviser, Carol Rasco, thanked her children, to showing obvious flashes of anger at questions on his policy toward Saddam and general testiness at the challenges to his credibility.
Asked about earlier indications that his economic program would be ready for Congress immediately after his inauguration, Clinton snapped, "Well, I don't know who led you to believe that, but I'm the only one who's authorized to talk about it." Last summer, Clinton himself said he would have his economic plan and other key legislation "ready on the desk of Congress on the day after I'm inaugurated."
Some skepticism about Clinton's willingness to live up to his campaign promises also was expressed on Capitol Hill today. "This week has been rather the clatter of campaign promises being tossed out the window," Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) complained to Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Donna E. Shalala during her confirmation hearing.
In announcing the temporary policy of returning fleeing boat people to Haiti without a hearing on board ship or on U.S. soil, Clinton insisted he was not going back on his campaign promises and suggested that "sometimes people only hear half of the message" of complicated positions.
"I still believe just exactly what I said, that everybody is entitled to a hearing who seeks to become a refugee in this country, and I want to give it to them," Clinton said. But he said that while the policy "should be changed more . . . . I don't think we can do it on a dime on January the 20th" without risking the lives of thousands of Haitians who might be encouraged to take to the seas.
During the campaign, Clinton had denounced the Bush administration policy of intercepting boats carrying Haitian refugees and returning them to Haiti as "another sad example of the administration's callous response to a terrible human tragedy."
Clinton said at the time that he believed those fleeing Haiti were political refugees and that as president he would not send them back to Haiti until democracy is restored there unless there was "clear and compelling evidence" that they were not political refugees.
Clinton defended his backtracking on promises to provide a tax cut for the middle class. The president-elect, whose opening campaign commercial in New Hampshire proclaimed that his economic program "starts with a tax cut for the middle class," complained that it was only the press, not voters, who considered that issue important.
"The American people would think I was foolish if I said, 'I will not respond to changing circumstances,' " he said.
"I think that it would be irresponsible for any president of the United States ever not to respond to changing circumstances. Every president, as far as I know, who's held this office, and especially the ones who really did a good job have had to answer questions like this, because they had to change some of their positions in response to changing circumstances."
Clinton said repeatedly during the campaign that he would have an economic and legislative program ready once he was sworn in. In June, for example, he said, "I will present on Jan. 21st a 100-day plan" to spur economic growth; improve education; and overhaul health care.
Today, he said he expects "to finalize the final economic decisions in the near future and to be ready to present them in the form of a State of the Union address with legislation to follow not long after I take office."
Clinton said -- "just to sort of put this timetable business into perspective" -- that Reagan did not give his first State of the Union address until mid-March. "I think we'll do better than that," Clinton added.
Reagan delivered his economic program in a speech to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 18, 1981, a timetable that Clinton aides still hope the incoming president can meet.
Staff writer Dan Balz and researcher Mark Stencel contributed to this report from Washington.
Here are some positions President-elect Clinton took during the campaign and what he says now.
The Bush policy "is another sad example of the administration's callous response to a terrible human tragedy. . . . If I were president, I would-in the absence of clear and compelling evidence that they weren't political refugees-give them temporary asylum until we restored the elected government of Haiti."
-Written policy statement, May 27, 1992
"For Haitians who do seek to leave Haiti, boat departure is a terrible and dangerous choice. . . . For this reason, the practice of returning those who fled Haiti by boat will continue, for the time being, after I become president. Those who do leave Haiti . . . by boat will be stopped and directly returned by the United States Coast Guard."
-Yesterday's radio address to the Haitian people
FIRST-100-DAYS ECONOMIC PLAN
". . . I'll have the bills ready the day after I'm inaugurated. I'll send them to Congress and we'll have a hundred-day period. . . . It will be the most productive in modern history."
-Interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," June 23, 1992
Question: "We were originally led to believe that you'd have an outline to Congress even before the inauguration and presented on Day One or shortly thereafter. . . . When will it be ready?"
Clinton: "I don't know who led you to believe that, but I'm the only one who's authorized to talk about that."
-Yesterday's news conference
MIDDLE-CLASS TAX CUT
". . . I believe you deserve more than 30-second ads or vague promises. That's why I've offered a comprehensive plan to get our economy moving again. . . . It starts with a tax cut for the middle class and asks the rich to pay their fair share again."
-Clinton's first campaign advertisement, January 1992
"From New Hampshire forward, for reasons that absolutely mystified me, the press thought the most important issue in the race was the middle-class tax cut. I never did meet any voter who thought that. . . .
"We have a structural deficit that is too high. The American people would think I was foolish if I said I will not respond to changing circumstances."
-Yesterday's news conference
Compiled by Mark Stencel -- The Washington Post