AFTER FIVE YEARS AS president, Bill Clinton still tries to finesse policy decisions so everybody will be happy. And it never works.

Take the needle exchange decision. The National Institutes of Health did a study indicating that programs to provide drug addicts with sterile needles have cut the spread of HIV. AIDS activists urged the administration to provide federal money for local programs as one way of reducing AIDS cases, especially among partners and children of drug abusers.Anti-drug advocates within the administration argued strenuously that federal support of needle exchange programs would send the wrong signal to young people about drugs.

The Department of Health and Human Services scheduled a news conference to announce that Clinton had decided to back funding of needle exchange programs. But then Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala was told this was too risky politically since Republicans in Congress would jump all over the president and undo the policy to boot.

So the administration announced it would deny funding but support the concept of exchanging clean needles for dirty needles.

Not surprisingly, Republicans immediately derided Clinton for vowing to put the full force of the federal government behind the campaign against teen smoking while at the same time seeming to wink at a far worse addiction - drugs - by promoting the use of clean needles, at least in the short term.

At the same time, AIDS activists ricocheted around the country railing against what they labeled Clinton's hypocrisy and duplicity for being unwilling to put money where his mouth is.

Two days later came another example of Clinton's eagerness to please everyone. To counter criticism that he has done little of late for the economic well-being of former Soviet republics, Clinton sat down with the president of Turkmenistan. Oh yes, Clinton also wants to secure new pipelines for oil and gas resources in Turkmenistan not subject to the vagaries of oil involving Iran and Iraq.

With an entourage of black limousines, Saparmurad Niyazov proudly showed up at the White House to see Clinton. Then Vice President Al Gore met with him and they signed at least seven agreements, including a Trans Caspian pipeline feasibility project, a joint statement on security aspects of the U.S.-Turkmenistan relationship and resource-sharing ventures involving big companies such as Mobil.

Pundits went berserk because Niyazov, a big-time Communist before communism went out of style, doesn't bother with niceties such as free and regular elections, giving political opponents their rights or permitting the dissemination of newspapers that have freedom of the press.

Thus White House spokesman Mike McCurry hastened to the press briefing room podium to say that Clinton had talked to Niyazov about human rights and had emphasized that the United States would like to see some changes in Turkmenistan now that the agreements were signed.

Then there is the monster $217 billion transportation bill overwhelmingly passed by the House ($214 billion in the Senate version), which is a dream come true for any politician facing re-election and eager to show voters what he or she delivered to the home district. The bill has something for just about everybody but is $53 billion above the amount the president re-quest-ed.

Clinton, eager to notch his belt with a balanced budget, is alarmed at the amount of spending proposed and is working on compromises in the conference committee with Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., who crafted the giant bill.

But the White House refuses to say that Clinton will veto the bill if it comes to him with its current price tag. That's because Clinton doesn't want to alienate his own party members, many of whom think that in the past he has stepped all over them when it suited his interests.

Many Republicans have scoffed that despite his talk, Clinton won't veto the bill no matter what they do.

They also have declared his child-care proposal, his education proposals, his trade plan, his budget and his tobacco tax dead.

One wonders what Clinton, a lame duck, is saving himself for. While compromise is vital in politics, there doesn't seem to be much point in playing both sides of the fence and kissing off principle at this stage - unless he doesn't feel strongly one way or the other about such things as needle exchanges, Turkmenistan and highway bills.