State of Union speech must redefine presidency



WASHINGTON -- The most appreciative audience for State of the Union addresses is usually found here in the capital, where everyone loves ritual and ceremony. Most of the voters elsewhere understand they are just speeches unlikely to change their lives.

But President Clinton's speech Tuesday to a joint session of Congress and a national television audience has an unusual political dimension because, once again, he needs to focus attention on his agenda and away from debilitating distractions.

This seems to be a pattern with this president. A year ago, his State of the Union speech allowed him to define his priorities and put behind him the controversies that had grown out of problems in staffing his administration.

By late summer, however, the long wrangle over his budget and tax plan had eroded much of the coherence in his program -- until Clinton delivered a Sept. 22 speech on his plan for national health care reform and once again earned a kind of fresh start.

Four months later, the president again needs to refocus on the public questions he considers most important and, simultaneously, get beyond the fresh controversies over the Whitewater Development Corp. and his trouble in replacing Secretary of Defense Les Aspin without any further embarrassment.

At least to some degree, Clinton has been taken off the hook on Whitewater by the choice of a Republican of apparently impeccable credentials, Robert B. Fiske Jr., to be the special counsel investigating the matter. Republicans may continue to demand a congressional inquiry as well but, given the history of how Congress compromised the Iran-contra prosecutions, it should be relatively easy for the Democrats to resist.

The broad charter given Fiske offers political insulation. His authority extends even to the circumstances of the suicide of Vincent W. Foster Jr., an event that has nourished conspiracy theoreticians for almost six months.

But the president still needs to turn the national debate back to health care reform if he is to have any hope of getting even a minimal program approved this year. He needs also to send a signal both to Congress and the nation as a whole about what other priorities he will pursue. Liberals and conservatives alike 00 have an obvious interest in finding out how serious he is about seeking welfare reform this year.

Clinton has used political rhetoric effectively in the past, despite his embarrassing performance in droning on too long when he nominated Michael S. Dukakis in Atlanta in 1988. Embarking on his quest for the 1992 Democratic nomination, he laid a foundation by delivering a series of speeches at Georgetown University in 1991 that, among other things, demonstrated some facility and sophistication on foreign policy questions. He was clever enough, moreover, to make those speeches here where it would be inexpensive and easy for budget-conscious television networks to cover them.

The Arkansas governor then established himself as the de facto front-runner within his party by fashioning a speech, delivered to several audiences including a pivotal meeting of Democratic state party chairmen in Chicago late in 1991. That one defined him as a "new Democrat" who would reach out to more conservative Democrats on such issues as "responsibility" on the part of welfare recipients.

The situation now is obviously different. Clinton is no longer a largely unknown regional politician writing on a clean slate. He has been through the rigors of a campaign and a year in the White House distinguished by one controversy after another. Opinion polls show him with generally favorable ratings at the moment but still define more doubts about his credibility than he would prefer.

Perhaps more important, he will be delivering his speech Tuesday at the beginning of an election year for all 435 members of the House of Representatives and 34 senators. He can expect no quarter from Republicans and probably considerable skepticism from many Democratic colleagues wondering what gangplanks they may be asked to walk.

So the State of the Union will be what it always is -- a grand occasion for men in blue suits and women in bright red dresses to crowd the House gallery. But it also will be an opportunity for Clinton to reclaim the political initiative that has slipped away in the last few months.

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