Into Clinton's Second Year

January 26, 1994

William Jefferson Clinton was a president very much in command last night in his first official State of the Union address. Although the initial year of his administration was flawed by mistakes and setbacks, many of them of his own making, he came out of the ordeal with his poll ratings rising, the economy recovering and the nation's political agenda virtually his own.

As the "agent of change," Mr. Clinton guaranteed that the second session of the 103rd Congress would be an explosive mixture of legislation and politics leading to November elections. By that time the nation will either have new statutes on crime, telecommunications, worker retraining, health care insurance and perhaps even welfare reform, or the voters will be asked to decide why not.

If normal patterns prevail, there will be more Republicans and fewer Democrats in the 104th Congress next year. But because fair winds are blowing in Bill Clinton's direction, GOP leaders know they will have to be aggressive and adroit to deflect the president's momentum. Thus, the Republican readiness to do battle on health care reform despite the risk this most defining of Clinton initiatives may end up with wide popular support.

Mr. Clinton is doing his best to deny his opponents hot issues of their own choosing. His embrace of the demagogic proposal to put three-time federal felons behind bars for life, without parole, was his way of saying the Democrats could also be tough on crime. His quick turnabout to put welfare reform on a fast track was designed to avoid a split in Democratic ranks, with centrists alienated, that would have given the GOP a clear opening.

Excess is a Clinton trademark, and often he has turned this characteristic into a positive. Last year he achieved his best political day by ramming through an increase in taxes and curbs on deficits by only one vote in either house. It was this victory, plus the friendly reaction it generated in world financial markets, that enabled the president to claim the recovery as his own and revel in deficits dipping well under the $200 billion mark.

Now he can zero in on health care as his prescription to keep deficits under control throughout the decade. Only in curbing runaway Medicare and Medicaid costs by folding them into a health system guaranteeing universal coverage can this be done, the president argues. The GOP response cannot be to kill the Clinton initiative -- that would be political suicide -- but to come up with an alternative that is less government-intrusive.

Partisan lines on health are more clearly defined than on welfare reform, which finds the president, centrist Democrats and Republicans united in demanding the end to a system that lures poor people into chronic dependency. Only liberals demur.

In all, it was a more experienced, more confident president the American people saw last night. He brought vibrancy and passion to the nation's capital, and in this election year some of that feeling is bound to spread throughout the country.

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