A commitment to presidential activism

January 26, 1994|By Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Health care, crime, welfare reform and foreign affairs all had their appointed places in President Clinton's State of the Union address last night, but the speech was above all a testament to the evolving and expanding ambition of the man who delivered it.

From his youth, Bill Clinton was goaded by a drive to achieve the office he now holds. As president, he has displayed an equally powerful but markedly more expansive ambition: to use the Oval Office to put his stamp on the entire nation.

If George Bush always betrayed the sense that the presidency was the end to which he had struggled, Mr. Clinton has come to see the Oval Office as a means, not an end.

That impulse was on vivid display last night. He called first of all for health care reform. Then swift completion of the massive crime bill. To be followed by welfare reform --only recently consigned to policy limbo by White House aides who feared it would clog the legislative arteries. Not to mention a new job training program and education reform. And a national information superhighway -- laid down in legislation, this year, too.

Not neglecting foreign affairs, he has a blueprint for his own new world order built around promoting democracy and open markets around the world. And for good measure, he passionately urged a reconsecration of American values.

"The naysayers fear we will not be equal to the challenges of our time," Mr. Clinton declared, "but they misread our history, our heritage and even today's headlines. They all tell us we can and we will overcome any challenge."

What unifies Mr. Clinton's insistent ambitions is his desire to create a new construct for American politics -- a realignment not only in electoral loyalties but in the guiding principles for government. Through all his ups and downs, Mr. Clinton has never wavered from one central belief: the conviction that he can thread a "third way" between the "false choices" of traditional liberal and conservative dogma.

To Mr. Clinton and many of his advisers, building that bridge across the political divides of the past quarter century remains the key to constructing both a re-election majority and a public consensus behind the activist government the president hopes to lead.

But an overriding lesson of Mr. Clinton's first year is that these bridges are easier to build in rhetoric than in policy. So his address last night was at once a brilliant exposition of how vast a presidency Mr. Clinton wants and how close he will skate to the edge of thin ice in pursuit of that ambition.

In the State of the Union, as in other speeches, Mr. Clinton could and did glide past such uncomfortable questions as where he would find the money to pay for his agenda and how to broaden his political appeal without alienating the Democratic left, which is, after all, the active heart of his party. But those inherent tensions are proving far more difficult to manage when designing and legislating programs.

Once again this year, Mr. Clinton must struggle to reconcile his two overriding economic goals: reducing the deficit and increasing public investment on programs such as education and training. Last year, he could not square that circle: in a public environment skeptical of new spending, Congress focused on deficit reduction and significantly scaled back his investment agenda.

Last night, he made clear that he is still seeking more. But the emphasis on deficit reduction has forced Mr. Clinton to phase in all of these programs more slowly than he had hoped. And the caps imposed on discretionary domestic spending last year mean that he will only be able to increase his "investment" spending to the extent that he can push cuts in other programs through Congress.

On the other top domestic issues, Mr. Clinton must manage the second principal tension in his "third way" approach: bridging the often divergent interests of his Democratic base and the moderate voters he hopes to attract in 1996.

This intricate byplay with the GOP pulls Mr. Clinton's tightrope tauter. Already, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, the Congressional Black Caucus and House liberals are complaining that the crime bill passed by the Senate last November tilts too heavily toward punishment.

Similarly, House liberals already have signaled that they will fight Mr. Clinton's call for a two-year time limit on welfare; fear of provoking another tussle with the left is one reason the White House has hesitated to introduce the plan.

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