WASHINGTON -- The symbolism was heavy on a November afternoon in 1992 when the president-elect took an exuberant stroll through a struggling black neighborhood as his first public outing in the capital.
Bill Clinton was introducing himself to his new home town. He said he "wanted to show America that I'm going to do my best not to get out of touch."
So Clinton came not to Washington the government town that day, but to "D.C.," the majority black city where bloated local government and blighted neighborhoods had produced a major national image problem.
"There's a city out here, a city that needs a president," Clinton said during his handshaking tour of a rundown commercial section of Georgia Avenue, sometimes called Washington's black Main Street.
Since then, the Clinton administration has tried to help Washington the city, but not enough to satisfy the hopes he raised on that walking tour.
Last week, Clinton offered Washington one more gesture: He directed that his presidential limousine be outfitted with the city's optional license plates that bear the legend, "Taxation Without Representation" as a protest against the city's lack of voting representation in Congress.
That put President-elect Bush in the position of having to decide whether to replace the plates with some bearing the city's old -- and tamer -- slogan: "Celebrate and Discover."
When asked whether she thought Bush would leave the plates intact, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's nonvoting delegate to Congress, said, "I hope so."
The promises implicit in Clinton's early gesture made local leaders giddy. Here was a president who talked in detail about economic development for the inner city. District politicians hoped he would pursue their dream of statehood or at least voting representation in Congress. It turned out to be a vain wish.
Clinton never mustered the political will to do anything really big for the city, said Jamin Raskin, an American University law professor who worked on an unsuccessful Supreme Court appeal for city voting rights this year.
"That's the sense of opportunity lost," Raskin said.
Still, the city is out of debt, home ownership and real estate development are up and welfare rolls are down. There is a snazzy new downtown sports arena. Tired commercial blocks near the National Mall are home to new office buildings and pricey steak restaurants.
The new mayor, Anthony Williams, has improved Washington's self-image and relations with congressional overseers.
Washington is no longer the "crime capital" depicted by Richard Nixon.
But the Clinton years saw a reversal for political independence for the federal city; Congress imposed an outside board to oversee chaotic city finances.
"What the president has failed to do is in any meaningful way is make a powerful national case for voting rights and full democracy in D.C. He never used the bully pulpit," Raskin said.
Norton calls such criticism unrealistic.
"The Republicans took over (Congress) in 1994. That was the end of that," she said.
"We've asked the president to do a lot for us," Norton said. "If you add it up, he's done more for the city than any president in American history."
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