Clinton issues 'call to arms' for economy Tighten belts now to ensure vitality, president urges

February 16, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, preparing the nation for some painful economic belt-tightening, drew up battle lines with "the defenders of decline" last night and issued "a call to arms to restore the vitality of the American dream."

In his first nationally televised address from the Oval Office, he cast himself as a Washington outsider and an agent of change, saying: "The price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change."

Like a doctor preparing a patient for surgery, he explained the necessity for painful action, the unacceptable cost of delay and the long-term benefit of successful treatment.

Like former presidential candidate Ross Perot, he produced color charts and graphs to illustrate his points.

And like former President Ronald Reagan, he appealed directly to the public over the heads of the politicians who will ultimately pass judgment on his program.

Not once did Mr. Clinton mention the word "sacrifice," as he had earlier. In a subtle change of tone, he talked -- as he has the past week or so -- of making a "contribution" to the nation's future.

"We have to face the fact that to make the changes our country needs, more Americans must contribute today so that all Americans can do better tomorrow," he said.

Reserving most of the details of his economic program for his speech to a joint session of Congress tomorrow, Mr. Clinton concentrated last night on telling voters of the difficulties and opportunities he faced as he drafted his blueprint for the future.

In one of the few specifics, he promised that 70 percent of proposed new taxes would be paid by those earning more than $100,000 -- a figure far lower than the $200,000 income level he has previously used to define the wealthy.

"For the first time in more than a decade, we're all in this together," he told voters.

It was a populist start to a crucial week during which Mr. Clinton, the candidate of change, hopes to define himself as a New Democrat, establishing a nontraditional set of priorities for modernizing the nation and making it prosperous again.

Tempering his call for immediate austerity with a vision of future well-being, Mr. Clinton promised, "Our comprehensive plan for economic growth will create millions of long-term, good-paying jobs, including a program to jump-start our economy with another 500,000 jobs in 1993 and 1994.

"Change this fundamental will not be easy, nor will it be quick. But at stake is the control of our economic destiny."

Central to his message was his assertion that even as the economy appeared to be improving, the deficit was worsening, confronting him with ever harder choices and forcing him into reluctant retreat from his campaign pledge of a tax break for the middle class.

He told middle-class voters: "I had hoped to invest in your future by creating jobs, expanding education and reforming health care without asking more of you. And I have worked harder than I have ever worked in my life to meet that goal. But I cannot. . . ."

"But I can assure you of this: You're not alone, you're not going first, and you're no longer going to pay more and get less. . . . For the first time in more than a decade, we're all in this together."

Instead of tax cuts, the program will involve tax increases and spending reductions, which will affect all sectors of society but particularly the wealthy, in an effort to reduce the deficit by as much as $145 billion in fiscal 1997.

To spur job creation, which has lagged woefully during the recurrent recovery, it will also include $16 billion in public works spending and another $15 billion in investment incentives for private businesses.

This stimulus package will be put on a fast track through Congress and should be passed in weeks. The rest of the program will follow the normal budgetary process and will come under heavy attack.

Acknowledging that his program would face an uphill battle, Mr. Clinton appealed to voters for help in "changing our course."

"Those who have profited from the status quo will oppose the changes we seek, every step of the way," he said. "They've already lined the corridors of power with high-priced lobbyists. They are the defenders of decline, but we are the architects of the future."

Mr. Clinton has been diligent in courting members of Congress, bringing small groups of Democrats to the White House almost daily. He will seek to restrain Republican opposition to his plan -- already derided as old-style Democratic "tax and spend" policy by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas -- during a trip to Capitol Hill today.

Mr. Dole, in the Republican response to the address, said last night he would work with Mr. Clinton "to make certain that sacrifice isn't just a presidential code word for more taxes, more spending and more mandates from Washington."

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