President is scarred but resilient STATE OF THE UNION

January 26, 1994|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A year ago President Clinton could deliver an extravagant speech inviting Americans to join him on "a great national journey" in a radically different direction. He was a politician elected to effect change and a new president writing on a clean slate.

By contrast, Mr. Clinton's 1994 call on Americans to "continue our journey of renewal" came from a national leader defined -- and scarred -- by a year of successes and failures in dealing with Congress and controversy.

The result was a speech in which the political goals were both specific and immediate -- and often reactions to what has happened in those 12 months.

The most obvious difference lay in the emphasis the president placed on the crime issue, a topic that merited only two brief paragraphs last time around.

Now Mr. Clinton was clearly determined to use his bully pulpit to claim equal billing with the most conservative Republicans as an advocate of the tough measures against crime that have become the mantra of politicians of both parties in the last few months.

But Mr. Clinton also was trying to regain control of the debate on two related issues -- reform of the health care and welfare systems, which he said could be done "both at the same time."

The message was that he remains committed to universal and comprehensive health insurance coverage, despite the evidence in opinion polls that his contention there is a health care crisis may be overblown.

"The naysayers don't understand the impact of this problem on people's lives," Mr. Clinton declared. "They just don't get it. We must act now to show that we do."

The president also seemed to determined to anticipate new demands he expects from Congress for further and drastic spending reductions.

On the face of it, the president appeared to be dealing from strength when he went before Congress and a national television audience last night.

His approval rating in the most recent polls has risen to about 60 percent, a more than comfortable level for a politician who has taken on so many controversial issues and suffered so many small embarrassments.

Moreover, the context was highly favorable. As Mr. Clinton took pains to point out, the economy appears on the road to recovery.

Inflation and interest rates are at 20-year lows. Unemployment has been declining, housing starts rising. The private sector has produced 1.6 million new jobs in the last year.

But not all of the elements of the political climate are so encouraging for the White House.

The latest ABC News-Washington Post poll, for example, found that 60 percent of Americans believe the country is "off on the wrong track," compared with 31 percent who say it is "headed in the right direction" -- a finding that ordinarily makes political strategists for incumbents uneasy.

Perhaps more to the point, the recent surveys have charted a trend of rising skepticism about the health care reform plan and an increasing preoccupation with an issue, crime, on which few political leaders expect any dramatic reversal in the years immediately ahead.

Mr. Clinton and his advisers are persuaded that the good news on the economy and the strong case for health care reform have only to be made clear to pay off in success in the polls, in Congress and in election results.

So the single most important element of the context for Mr. Clinton's speech was simply the fact that this is an election year in which all 435 seats in the House and 34 in the Senate are at stake.

The timing means nervous incumbents will test the political temperature before every vote and, more to the point for the president, watch closely to see whether he can bring the country along with him or whether he should be resisted or abandoned.

Mr. Clinton was obviously well aware of that reality and, as well, of another element of the political timetable more pertinent to him -- the fact that the 1996 presidential campaign is just over the horizon. The "journey of renewal" leading up to that campaign will not be an easy trip.

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