Balancing act

January 28, 1994|By Robert Kuttner

PRESIDENT Clinton's State of the Union address won high praise among viewers for eloquence and resolve. But it is also instructive to review the speech as a strategic document.

Mr. Clinton's themes offered a delicate balancing act -- between a traditional Democratic blue-collar base and a worried middle class, New Democrats and New Dealers, budget balancers and big spenders. Consider:

* Budget Bondage. Mr. Clinton's quandary is excruciating. Though the deficit has come down dramatically, polls show that voters still don't trust the administration on budget discipline. And in the wings are far more draconian fiscal proposals -- a constitutional amendment to require budget balance and a budget amendment requiring deeper spending cuts.

But President Clinton needs some public spending to carry out his health, welfare and job training initiatives. On the one hand, he can't seem to be egging on the deficit hawks; on the other, he can't seem to be walking away from his own role as slayer of the deficit.

The speech emphasized progress already made, promised more cuts but stopped short of attacking those who would commit budgetary overkill. Mr. Clinton's reluctance to defend public outlay could make his own job harder later on.

* Train to Nowhere? With no new money for direct job creation, the president gave great emphasis to training. Job training is also the key element that differentiates his presumably humane welfare reform from simply throwing needy people off the rolls.

But thanks to the same budget pressures, there is little money to pay for the training, and no guarantee that training will lead to actual jobs. The administration's new "School-to-Work Opportunities Act" gives states an average of just $400,000 each, enough for only a handful of schools.

* Steal the Republicans' Clothes. It's no secret that Mr. Clinton's tough-minded initiatives on crime and welfare reform hijack long-standing Republican themes. Making welfare "a second chance, not a way of life" and sending up violent three-time losers for life are popular with an anxious public.

But beyond the short-term political satisfaction, will these policies really solve the problem? Criminologists point out that America already builds more prisons and locks up criminals for far longer periods than any other free country -- yet for some reason crime keeps proliferating.

Getting tough with welfare recipients also resonates with the values of most Americans. However, unless a welfare crackdown is coupled with other policies to provide decent jobs, child care and affordable housing, we are likely to "solve" the welfare crisis only to see more homeless people on the street, more shattered families and perhaps more crime.

* Rehabilitate Congress. Mr. Clinton's speech lavished praise on Congress for breaking gridlock. This generosity addresses another intriguing dilemma. Mr. Clinton has defined himself as a "New Democrat," suggesting something amiss with old Democrats -- such as those in Congress.

Today, voters hold Congress in extremely low repute. A majority of voters say they are inclined to vote against incumbents. And Democrats in Congress score even lower than Republicans.

However, Democratic members of Congress are precisely the allies Mr. Clinton needs to enact his program. His working legislative majority is wafer-thin. If Democrats lose even 10 seats in the House next November -- less than the average loss for the president's party in mid-term elections -- there will be a return to gridlock. So the president gamely shared some of his own narrow halo with the despised demons of Capitol Hill.

* Go Right, Go left. To offset the tough talk on crime and welfare, Mr. Clinton signaled equal toughness on the liberals' favorite issue -- health-care reform. His threat to veto anything that failed to provide universal coverage is aimed as much at conservatives in his own party, notably Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, as at Republicans. His emphasis on health reform as the only long-term solution to endless deficits also embraces the liberal view of the true fiscal crisis.

Recent polls have shown Mr. Clinton's support rising among every demographic group. However, the polls that count most -- the ones on Election Day -- also show a severe falloff in voting participation among working class and minority voters who make up the Democratic base.

That falloff substantially accounts for the recent Democratic losses in the Los Angeles and New York mayoralty races, and in the election for New Jersey governor. Though Mr. Clinton's speech was an overall success, there was not much in it to rally those core Democratic voters. Punitive welfare reform, job training without jobs, chintzy health reform would further alienate the Democratic base.

Bill Clinton's State of the Union address offered an inspiring rhetorical performance -- and a reminder of just how narrow is his room to maneuver. Mr. Clinton wants to produce real change, but history has given him the resources to offer mainly symbolism.

Mr. Clinton wants to be an activist president, but his majority in Congress is far narrower than any of this century's activist Democrats. His approval ratings are just beginning to climb into the range that causes members of Congress to align themselves with the president rather than against him.

If he wants a popular mandate for sweeping change, Mr. Clinton will have to build it from the ground up.

Robert Kuttner writes a column on economic matters.

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