Lagos's inauguration speech symbolized his decade-long efforts to straddle a center position in Chile's highly polarized politics. He acknowledged his leftist roots by paying tribute to Allende's widow, calling her a "representative of Chile's dignity." As Chile's first president of the twenty-first century, Lagos carefully pointed to the unresolved and painful issues of the Pinochet era. But he quickly moved to a theme of unity, mentioning prominent conservatives who have played a major role in shaping the history of the country. Lagos's careful approach is a hallmark of his political career, despite the defiant shaking of a finger at Pinochet in 1988.
He has courted the working classes, often delivering hardhitting speeches about Chile's unjust social system. Yet, he has never displayed the fiery rhetoric of his leftist predecessors, who called on Chileans to take over factories and land. Lagos has been careful to avoid polarizing the country's upper classes and the Concertación's conservative partners, the Christian Democrats. He has courted prominent U.S. businessmen and has promised to leave virtually untouched the country's free market economic policies. His moderation has angered the Communists and Socialists, many of whom don't consider Lagos to be one of their own. Much like Britain's Tony Blair, Lagos believes nations do not have to embrace the United States' model of capitalism. Yet, he does not hold that socialism is the answer. Instead, he and others like him tout a "Third Way" in which the government has a greater regulatory role in a free market economy. This is a key point for Lagos, who has described himself as a social democrat. He wants to increase workers' rights decimated by the Pinochet regime without angering industrialists who worry Lagos's proposed changes could simply lead to strikes.
Lavín's surprisingly strong results at the polls meant Lagos faced the challenge of maintaining the delicate balance of the center-left Concertación coalition. However, many Chileans have become increasingly disillusioned with the center-left coalition. Once the undisputed voice of democracy, the Concertación has been criticized for reverting into a political machine that hands out coveted government jobs to a small elite. In legislative elections held 16 December 2001, the Concertación's majority (70 seats) in the 120-seat lower legislative house (Chamber of Deputies) dropped to 63 (reducing their majority from 20 seats to 6 seats). In the Senate, Concertación retained control of just 20 seats, wiping out their one-seat majority.
Lagos has been described as having a sober personality, and distaste for impulsiveness. He is considered an efficient technocrat and admired for a no-nonsense approach to government. He chose cabinet ministers carefully, stressing their expertise rather than party affiliations. Among his 18 cabinet members, five are women, a reflection of his personal views on equal rights for women.
Aylwin and Frei were unable to make reforms to the Constitution engineered by Pinochet. Congress, by a 113–27 vote, approved a constitutional reform titled "Dignity of the ex-President" shortly after Lagos's inauguration. The law allows Pinochet to keep his Senate salary and immunity after his resignation (Senator for Life). Lagos has promised he will guarantee the independence of the judiciary if Pinochet is brought to trial. A conservative Supreme Court and Senate that remain sympathetic to the former dictator would hinder Lagos.
An able minister during the Aylwin and Frei administrations, Lagos was perceived as a leader who could get things done. For thousands of poor Chileans, Lagos represented the best opportunity to improve their lives. However, the depth of Chile's economic woes challenged even Lagos's leadership. By mid-2001, his low ratings in public opinion polls indicated that Chilean people were holding Lagos responsible for the government's ineffectiveness in dealing with the sluggish economy.