Clinton's search for a winning theme

January 23, 1995|By Andrew J. Glass

WASINGTON — Washington -- We AMERICANS seem to have a soft spot for sports teams that fall behind, only to rally and win. But are we ready to think that way about a president who is mired in a deep political hole?

Bill Clinton's bid to revive his sagging fortunes may well turn on what he has to say tomorrow night in his annual State of the Union address. All the major networks will carry the speech. Upwards of 60 million Americans are expected to tune in.

With so much at stake for Bill Clinton, it should come as no surprise that since the Republican victory at the polls, the president and his aides have come to invest a lot in this speech.

There has been more than the usual soul-searching and internal debate in the White House inner circle. (Although Mr. Clinton has a penchant for not making up his mind, he is far from an empty vessel into which streams of advice can easily be poured.)

Three kinds of drafts have been passed to the president for his review. One takes a pragmatic approach. The second is basically confrontational. And the final proposal stresses a thematic agenda. At this point, there's no way of knowing which of these paths Mr. Clinton will finally follow. Perhaps we'll hear some of each.

In giving a pragmatic pitch, Mr. Clinton would position himself as a leader who cares deeply about the problems facing middle-class Americans. His line would go something like this: "Even a leaner government, such as we all want, must address their basic concerns. That's why we to need to enact welfare reform and the 'Middle-Class Bill of Rights' package of tax cuts which I unveiled last month."

In taking a confrontational line, Mr. Clinton would strive, once more, to define himself as a strong political leader and not a milder clone of the Republicans who will make up the bulk of his immediate audi

ence. He needs to do this if only because, in poll after poll, Americans say they cannot fathom what Mr. Clinton stands for -- beyond simply winning office.

Recently, Labor Secretary Robert Reich has been test-marketing a populist administration -- one that would not be at all upset in discomfiting the kind of people who sit in plush boardrooms. Since Mr. Clinton also wants to be liked by the rich and powerful (whose help he needs anyway on much legislation) any jabs in the speech against "corporate giveaways" are likely to be muted.

A thematic talk would focus less on Clinton and more on the State of the Union. Game theoreticians would dub it the most high-risk, high-reward strategy.

While Mr. Clinton is a cautious man who often tries (and fails) to control events around him, he doesn't relish the idea of retiring in 1997 as a 50-year-old ex-president. So he may conclude that he needs to roll the dice in order to change the country's generally poor opinion of him.

Speaking in Denver during the Martin Luther King holiday, Mr. Clinton said: "This country cannot go on with more and more little babies being born into unstable situations where the mothers are children too and the future looks bleak. We can turn this around, but we have got to turn it around and we have got to do it together by lifting each other up."

Was this a thematic tryout for the House podium? We shall soon see.

Andrew J. Glass is Washington bureau chief of the Cox Newspapers.

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