Putting it on the table

February 18, 1993

After weeks of trial balloons, there was little mystery left in President Clinton's long-awaited State of the Union address last night. Even so, there are stark differences between the tough remedies proposed and the campaign rhetoric that got Mr. Clinton to the White House. His challenge now is to convince the country that the sacrifices he calls for will truly make a difference. That will take brave leadership.

The president claims he is offering a balanced package of spending cuts and tax increases, but Republicans are charging the administration with tax-and-spend Democratic government as usual. In past years, that charge worked like a magic mantra. But with the specter of Ross Perot hovering in the background, the political climate is different now. After all, Mr. Perot won 19 percent of the presidential vote and he promised higher taxes. Support from Mr. Perot might help to take the sting out of some of these proposals -- especially those affecting the long-suffering middle class. Middle class families who had hoped to be spared any tax increases are learning the hard way that no deficit reduction plan worth its salt can bypass them.

But if the medicine seems hard to swallow, it's worth remembering the president's reminder that doing nothing will lead to worse consequences. We simply can no longer ignore a national debt that is eating up ever-increasing portions of the annual budget. Unless that monster is tamed, other schemes to make America competitive and to keep it prosperous will be futile.

However much the American people dislike tax increases, they know the country is not in good shape. They also know that bureaucracy has a way of insulating itself against change. Before sacrificing -- or even "contributing" -- they need assurances that their efforts will produce measurable improvements in the deficit. That is where the president's persuasive powers will come into play.

President Clinton faces two challenges. The immediate one is to convince Americans that their contributions are necessary and fair. Beyond that, he must be willing to follow through -- to be able to demonstrate that their contributions actually make a difference. Government-as-usual will be a betrayal.

President Clinton has put his cards on the table. Now he must demonstrate the leadership and stamina to get the program passed -- and to see that it works. That's a tall challenge, but presidencies are judged by tall measures.

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