Clinton looks to brighter future STATE OF THE UNION

January 26, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau Jack W. Germond, Paul West and Charles W. Corddry of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, declaring that "once again, the buck stops here," challenged Congress last night to pass sweeping health care legislation, reform the nation's welfare system and make the nation's streets safer -- all this year.

"Let us give our children a future," the president beseeched in his first State of the Union message.

In his first year in office, Mr. Clinton earned a reputation as someone who could be cajoled and bullied into altering key components of his legislation. Last night, though he expressed gratitude and respect for what Congress had accomplished in the past year, Mr. Clinton served notice that on these three issues there is little room for compromise.

"Hear me clearly," said the president while addressing his proposal for universal national health care insurance. "If the legislation you send me does not guarantee every American private health insurance that can never be taken away, then I will take this pen, veto that legislation, and we'll come right back here and start over again."

That brought Congress' liberal Democrats to their feet, but the president also sounded very much like the "new kind of Democrat" he promised he'd be when running for election when he vowed to send Congress a bill that requires able-bodied welfare recipients to work, requires absent fathers to pay child support and ends the government's policy of automatically making payments to underage mothers.

"We will say to teen-agers, 'If you have a child out of wedlock, we will no longer give you a check to set up a separate household.' We want families to stay together."

Finally, the president sounded a theme on crime that appealed to both ideological wings in Congress.

"Violent crime and the fear it provokes are crippling our society, limiting personal freedom, and fraying the ties that bind us," he said. "The crime bill before Congress gives you a chance to do something about it -- to be tough and smart."

The variety of guests seated in the gallery with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton underscored the array of themes touched on by the president. The anti-crime theme was represented by Kevin Jett of the New York City Police Department, whom Mr. Clinton introduced to the chamber as "a brave, young detective . . . whose beat is eight square blocks in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York City."

It also was represented by a victim of America's gun violence, former Reagan administration press secretary James Brady, who was wounded by a would-be assassin in 1981.

In an emotional ad-lib, Mr. Clinton pointed to Mr. Brady and said to emotional applause, "And Jim Brady, thank you for being here. God bless you, sir!"

Last February's economic address to Congress is cited universally by Mr. Clinton's advisers as his first year's finest hour. In that speech, Mr. Clinton, ad-libbing freely, spoke with the Congress in conversational, easy-to-understand language about the need for "shared sacrifice," to get America's economy moving again.

Last night, he spoke in glowing terms about the nation's slow but steady economic recovery, being careful not to take all the credit. He also extolled what he saw as the highlights of his first year in office.

These triumphs included the passage of the Brady bill, which requires a five-day waiting period for purchasing handguns; the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees Americans time to be with newborns or sick family members; the North American Free Trade Agreement, which links Canada, the United States and Mexico in a single free-trade zone; and his budget plan, which reversed many of the priorities of the Reagan Revolution.

The president peppered his speech with real-life examples of the trials of individual Americans as a way of illustrating his view that an activist government can work to make the lives of everyday people better.

As expected, he hit hard on the issue of violent crime, endorsing a federal law of "three strikes and you're out" that would keep career criminals in prison for life.

Top White House aides expressed hopes that last night's address would shore up support among the public and Mr. Clinton's congressional allies for his sweeping health care reform, which the president unveiled in a nationally televised address Sept. 22 and is scheduled to be tackled by Congress beginning today.

As crime has become a dominant issue in American politics, there has been consternation among Mr. Clinton's supporters on Capitol Hill over whether the White House still considered the lack of universal health care coverage in this country to be the most important legislative issue of 1994.

The buzzword -- at least inside the Washington Beltway -- was whether the president considered the nation's health care system to be in a "crisis."

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