State of the Union

January 26, 1994

President Clinton took office a year ago promising to turn the nation's attention homeward. He saw his highest challenges not abroad, but here in America where people worried about the availability of health insurance, the burdens on society caused by a growing underclass and, increasingly, their own safety amid signs that respect for law and order was eroding. Unlike some of his predecessors, Bill Clinton actually likes to wallow in the minutia of welfare policy or Medicaid regulations. So it was no surprise that the substance of last night's State of the Union address dealt with domestic policy, always this president's first love.

But the speech also demonstrated that his domestic agenda has not gone unchallenged and that it has, in fact, been reshaped by criticism. The laser-like focus on health care reform has been diffused amid cries that a very broken welfare system presents a crisis every bit as urgent as health care. The president now promises that a welfare plan will reach Congress soon. Equally unsettling for the prospects for health care reform is the public's preoccupation with crime. As expected, the president last night embraced a federal version of "three strikes and you're out" legislation that would put a third-time felon behind bars for life.

In reviewing his first year, the president did have one significant foreign policy success to brag about -- passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Otherwise, his foreign policy has been marred by missteps in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, as well as seeming confusion in finding either a coherent organizing principle or a clear voice on America's role in a post-Cold War world.

Even so, as President Clinton demonstrated again last night, he has brought an indomitable energy into the White House. Americans seem to like that and even congressional opponents give him a grudging respect.

A year ago, when a young president took the podium for his first State of the Union message, he had a rocky start. Someone had inadvertently put the wrong speech on the Teleprompter, forcing Mr. Clinton to wing it for the first few minutes. Given the circumstances, he did remarkably well. A year later, many of the glitches that initially plagued the administration have been smoothed out and the president clearly seems comfortable in his job.

But too often for our taste, he seems to revel in taking a Phil Donahue approach to communication -- a kind of leadership-by-talk-show. The ceremonial aspects of a State of the Union address provided a refreshing change from all that, reminding us all that the dignity of the presidency is in itself an important tool of leadership. Last night, Mr. Clinton seemed presidential -- a leader who has made significant progress toward his goals, but one who has many obstacles yet to clear.

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