FROM his unsuccessful first-term as Governor of Arkansas to last year's roller-coaster campaign for president, Bill Clinton has demonstrated an uncanny knack for being sure-footed and wrong-footed on alternate steps. Moving into the Oval Office hasn't changed a thing. His recent wanderings are a case in point. A week ago, television's instant-analysis jabber-talkies were busy writing Mr Clinton's political obituary - again. Ominous question marks cropped up after the words ''failed presidency'' on editorial pages across the land. Indeed, everything Mr Clinton touched during the month of May turned into lead, not gold. Senate Republicans handed him a stinging defeat on an economic stimulus package in which he had invested large sums of political capital. A simple dismissal of theWhite House travel staff became a mini-scandal giving rise to charges of cronyism and triggering investigations into White House misuse of the FBI. Already chagrined by his inability to follow through on his commitment to staunch the flow of blood in Bosnia, he was further embarrassed by the blunt admission of a hand-picked senior State Department official that the US doesn't have the will or wallet for foreign adventures. Even a presidential haircut turned into a public relations nightmare. When Mr Clinton held up air traffic at Los Angeles International Airport for an hour while a stylist-of-the-stars trimmed his locks on Air Force One, it became a symbol of ham-fisted ineptitude. By week's end, Mr Clinton's ''favourable rating'' - a wholly superficial but much-reported index of presidential popularity - was the lowest of any chief executive four months into an administration. The media zeroed in on Mr Clinton's mistakes like starving mosquitoes attacking an exposed limb. Part of the press corps' blood-lust is attributable to what has become a natural instinct - the carnivore hunting for the kill of the day. But another part of it was provoked. Contrary to the popular misconception that Mr Clinton benefits from a ''liberal'' bias in the media, relations with the White House are strained, to put it mildly. But just when it looked as if the President's freefall would stop only with a crash, he won a reprieve. After working the phones relentlessly, chasing down congressmen in hiding, Mr Clinton squeaked out a paper-thin victory in the House of Representatives on Thursday for the core of his economic plan, an ambitious package composed of US$250 billion in taxes and US$337 billion in budget cuts over the next five years. It was more a stay of execution than a victory, but at least it gives Mr Clinton a chanceto regroup and reverse his backward slide. ENLISTED last weekend as part of that effort was David Gergen, who will replace wunderkind George Stephanopoulos as White House communications director. Mr Gergen will also assume the more general role of presidential adviser. A reshuffling of the President's staff was in the cards, but the choice came as a surprise because of Mr Gergen's political pedigree. Best known outside the Capital as a news commentator on public television, Mr Gergen earned his spurs as a speechwriterand image-maker for three Republican presidents, most notably Mr Reagan, whose legacy Mr Clinton has vowed to dismantle. But reaching across the aisle was a very shrewd move, one intended to balance the liberal cast of the President's decisions on a number of social issues and in other cabinet-level appointments. Picking Mr Gergen is also a tacit nod to the reality of national politics: even though Mr Clinton ran on an outsider's platform, he needs an insider's savvy to negotiate to Byzantine maze of Washington's power structure. More than likely, Mr Gergen will also bring some much-needed organisational skills to the West wing of the White House, which has been in general disarray from the outset. While his predecessors have erred on the side of isolation, Mr Clinton has remained so accessible to so many of his senior staff and advisers that he has been unable to focus on the few crucial issues by which his presidency will ultimately be measured. Mr Gergen will also help blunt the attacks coming from the self-appointed gad-fly and back-seat driver of American politics, Ross ''The Boss'' Perot. The feisty billionaire from Texas startled even seasoned Perot-watchers this week his rabbit-punching jabs at Mr Clinton. Describing the President as barely qualified for a ''middle management'' job and dismissing his economic plan as typical Democratic tax-and-spend politics, Mr Perot has saturated the airwaves in a blitzkrieg of media appearances. As much as Democrats and Republicans alike would like to ignore him, Mr Perot has soared to new heights of popularity. He captured 19 per cent of the vote in November, and would probably get even more today. That Americans are still attracted to a paranoid populist with half-baked ideas is, one hopes, more a reflection of frustration than genuine appeal. But there is little doubt that he will continue to exert an enormous influence on the political process and that he has his eye on 1996. If Mr Clinton is going to succeed in building the centrist coalition of popular support he targeted as a candidate, he will have to stay on track and steal back some of Mr Perot's thunder. Winning Senate approval for his budget package next week will becrucial.