Clinton takes his case to TV 'meeting'

February 11, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Staff Writer

DETROIT -- President Clinton, playing the high-tech populist, used an electronic "town hall meeting" here yesterday to prepare the middle class for new taxes and promote a jobs program, including conversion of defense industries to civilian use.

In an hourlong exchange with ordinary Americans, he defended his efforts to lift the ban on gays in the military to an outraged minister in Atlanta; promised a more comprehensive retraining and job placement program to a laid-off Pan American World Airways worker in Miami; and told the parents of a child sickened by tainted meat in Seattle that he would introduce more stringent food inspection regulations and improve health care.

A Detroit father whose child had been shot was assured that passage of a crime bill would help bring about gun control and that introduction of a jobs program would ease the social pressures that lead to street crime.

A 17-year-old girl suffering from systemic lupus was told by the president that the administration's health care plan would make access to insurance coverage easier to afford for those with existing medical problems.

To a nurse, already anxious about returning to her job after the birth of her baby six weeks ago, he held out the prospect of improved child care provisions and a tax break for parents "who work hard and play by the rules."

And a Boeing Co. aircraft worker in Seattle, shaken by the announcement of 16,000 layoffs this week, was told that the administration was working on a strategy for converting defense industries to civilian use.

On foreign issues, Mr. Clinton committed the United States to greater involvement in international efforts to find a negotiated settlement in the former Yugoslavia, warned the Europeans that he wouldn't "roll over and play dead" over unfair trade, and

fended off criticism of his decision to blockade Haiti to prevent an influx of boat people.

Repeating the commanding performances he gave in similar meetings during the election campaign, the president displayed an impressive grasp of issues, domestic and foreign, and was prepared with background information and policy proposals that addressed questioners' concerns.

Obviously in his element, he said at the end of the exchange, "I hope there will be a lot of these."

He revealed no new details of his economic plan, but even before the show began he set the tone for next week's expected announcement of tax increases and spending cuts by saying on his arrival in Detroit, "There will be many difficult and challenging days ahead."

Asked during the town meeting by Katie Rabkin, an Atlanta musician, whether he was going to keep his campaign pledge of a middle-class tax cut, the president said, "I cannot tell you I won't ask you to make any contribution to the changes we have to make." He said he had to bring the federal debt down and create new jobs.

Mr. Clinton chose Detroit, an industrial city with more than its share of economic ills, as the backdrop for a televised primer on the nation's problems and prospects.

From a Detroit TV studio, he was linked by satellite to audiences in Miami, Atlanta and Seattle.

Mr. Clinton was able to define his vision and confront many of the problems that stand in the way of its realization as he prepared the nation for "the sacrifices" he will prescribe next week in his State of the Union address.

Meanwhile, Vice President Al Gore also spread the message, convening his own town meeting at a high school in Ontario, Calif., where he signaled that this would be the chosen format for the administration's dialogue with the citizens.

Aides said the president's trip was as much a listening as a scene-setting opportunity for Mr. Clinton.

The audiences, chosen randomly by the local television stations, aired the concerns that will be the basis of their judgment of Mr. Clinton's early performance.

Even before the town meeting began last night, Mr. Clinton encountered gratitude and grumbling. As the president waded into a welcoming crowd at the airport, one young man said, "Thank you for what you're doing for the gays," a reference to Mr. Clinton's effort to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military.

Arriving on his first flight aboard Air Force One, he said at an airport rally that he had received good news and bad news when he moved into the White House.

The good news was that consumer confidence was up, businesses were becoming more productive and people were refinancing their mortgages, he said; the bad news was that there was no growth in jobs or incomes, and that the federal deficit was $50 billion bigger than projected.

"I had to go back to the drawing board," he said, explaining that he wanted to boost incomes, take on the special interests and solve the health care crisis while reducing the deficit.

"It is not easy, I will tell you, but I'm doing my best," said Mr. Clinton, adding that he had spent "hours and hours and hours" on the economy in his three weeks in office.

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