IT had been 12 years since the previous Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, had been hounded out of office by a combination of belligerent Iranians, unsympathetic Washingtonians and a restless electorate. America had seen eight years of radical conservatism under Ronald Reagan, and four years of not very much at all under George Bush. The short-lived boom of the mid-80s' Yuppie Revolution had collapsed; America had been living off its Visa card for too long, a recession was biting, the poverty gap was growing, and gunfire was sounding across every corner of the country. William Jefferson Clinton, a so-called liberal with a mixed track record as governor of a minor league state, entered the White House on only 43 per cent of the vote. Unlike Reagan, who had plenty of ideas but little energy, and Bush, who had no ideas but plenty of projection, here was a president hungry for office and armed with the full artillery of ideas, conviction and seemingly boundless drive. The big question was, however, whether his ideas were right for America and the American people. After only 12 months, it is far too early to tell, especially on his economic policies. What is beyond doubt is that despite a series of broken promises, public relations mishaps and occasional incompetence, Clinton has imbued the presidency with a new dynamism, and has revitalised the public's fading belief in the federal government's power to halt the national decline. Even with two scandals hanging over his head at Christmas, the state troopers' adultery allegations and the simmering row over the Clintons' links to Arkansas banker, James McDougal, it is safe to say the President's first year started disastrously, and ended on a euphoric high. One of his first moves in January was the announcement that he was fulfilling his campaign promise to allow gays to serve in the military. That taught him his first, sobering lesson; that the Establishment is bigger, and sometimes tougher, than the country's leader. Military leaders were against it almost to a man and, with the help of the Senate's influential Armed Services Committee, theychanged the policy almost to the point of emaciation. Riding out the storm, Clinton finally settled on the coy ''don't ask, don't tell'' solution - and learned the White House art of compromise into the bargain. His faltering start continued with a set of disastrous nominations for top jobs. Clinton's earnest, politically correct striving to make his administration look like America, with a quota for minorities and women proved a minefield. EVEN his successful appointees have found themselves tinged with scandal. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown still has not shaken off allegations of accepting cash to help push Vietnam's bid for normalisations with Washington, and barely was deputy White House counsel Vince Foster's body cold after he shot himself in an Arlington park in July, than Clinton aides were covertly removing from his office all files related to the first family's controversial financial dealings in Arkansas, the Whitewater controversy. Clinton's administration is deeply rooted in his old buddies from Arkansas. Chief of Staff, Mack McLarty, has settled in well despite his lack of political experience; he was an Arkansas businessman before the election. But Clinton finds himself heavily compromised when a matter such as Whitewater crops up. Foster was a partner with Hillary Clinton in an Arkansas law firm, and acted to wind up Whitewater when it failed, leaving the Clintons out of pocket. Another reason for Clinton's disastrous early showing was his lack of a working public relations machine, and the hostile reaction of the spoiled White House press pack, who vented their fury when the new president denied them the access they had enjoyedunder George Bush. The media's revenge for being shut out came in May, when they devoured a story that the President, supposedly a man of the people, had delayed air traffic at Los Angeles airport while getting a US$200 haircut from society coiffeur Christophe on the presidential jet. No matter that the allegations of flight delays were later proved to be false; the damage was done and Clinton quickly moved to beef up his team with the addition of David Gergen, chief spin-for-hire troubleshooter who had previously served presidents Nixon and Reagan. Gergen quickly improved media access, schooled the White House in the art of propitious leaking, and the press corps, egos suitably soothed, have barely had a bad word to say about the President since. What we have now is an administration that overcame the early public relations mishaps to become perhaps the most adept yet at spinning stories, staging events, feeding the media, and shaping its leader's image as a veritable demi-God. Thankfully for the people, Clinton has a lot of personal substance to flesh out the television image. Sharp, intelligent, and highly disciplined, he is reported to be hands-on in dictating government policy. He has a brilliant memory, which he uses to great effect in live talk shows, speeches and public question and answer sessions when he wheels out facts and statistics to support any number of policy decisions. Despite the jokes about being First Husband to a woman president, Clinton has demonstrated his willingness to exploit his wife's own capabilities to good effect without compromising his own position of power. And if one of his avowed intentions was to smash the gridlock between the White House and Congress, that is one campaign promise nobody can accuse him of breaking. In his first year, he has enjoyed an almost unprecedented 86 per cent success rate of Congressional votes for his legislation and, even more startling, has not once had to use his presidential veto. The controversy over his alleged use of ''pork barrel'' politics to curry favour with dissenting congressmen has been well documented but, by the same token, few presidents have had the conviction to push through a programme of so many measures which areby no means vote-winners. The North American Free Trade Agreement vote was seen as his greatest political triumph, but the earlier debate on the Budget, which only carried on Vice President Al Gore's deciding Senate vote, will probably be judged as a crucial moment. In trying to reduce the deficit by $500 billion, Clinton pushed through unpopular cutbacks and tax rises for the wealthy, although once more he recognised political reality and had to drop an energy tax in favour of a much weaker petrol tax rise. Then there is health care reform, probably the single issue by which his four-year tenure will be judged a success or failure. It is a gargantuan task and, although he has skilfully won the public debate, not least with a brilliant J F Kennedy-like speech to Congress, he has yet to win the debate that matters: on Capitol Hill. If he passes a bill remotely resembling his and Hillary's original plan, that will indeed be a triumph. Even on crime, where Democrats were traditionally viewed as weak, Clinton has assumed a leadership role, defying the might of the wealthy National Rifle Association to support the Brady Bill, provide more money for police, and push for an anti-crime Billnow passing through Congress. In redefining the political debate in such a manner, Clinton has almost single-handedly given new life to the Democratic cause and banished the Republicans to the sidelines. Clinton has meanwhile managed to banish most preconceptions of him as a leftist liberal, coming across as a free-market moderate. Yet, an interesting spinoff of his reign has been a growing rightist movement that criticises Bush Republicans as having been too soft when in office. THERE is little doubt the rightists will assume control of the Republican party and that they will pose the biggest threat to Mr Clinton in 1996. ''I've had difficulty achieving things because I made up my mind to try to do the hard things. The easy things had by and large been done when I got here,'' said the President in a radio interview last week. Indeed it was, and he is lucky enough to see the jobless rate begin to fall, inflation remain steady, and interest rates come down while retail sales begin to expand. The average voter's standard of living is above all the factor which will dictate this radical new president's political future. Republicans won most of the important state and local elections in November, and may do just as well in crucial congressionalelections next year. Even though he must already have his eye on 1996, Clinton has shown himself to be more than ready to act on conviction rather than political expediency. After a rocky but stimulating first year, the cynical American public seems eager to trust him as a statesman worthy of his place in the Oval Office. If his controversial programmes are in place by mid-1995, and if they have done no harm to the hasteningeconomic recovery, he may find himself better placed than he could have hoped for a second term. On the other hand, another year like the last, and President Bill Clinton may be too exhausted to care.