Clinton issues call for 'new social compact' State of the Union speech echoes choices voiced by electorate Nov. 8 PRESIDENT CLINTON'S STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

January 25, 1995|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, trying to connect with a nation that increasingly looks outside government for its answers, called last night for a "new social compact" in which Americans exercise not just rights, but also responsibilities to their families, their neighbors and their country.

"We are the keepers of a sacred trust," the president said in his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

"Opportunity and responsibility; they go hand in hand. "We can't have one without the other. And our national community can't hold together without both."

In what White House officials hoped would be seen as a conciliatory and healing speech, the president also said Americans haven't been getting the leadership they deserve from their elected officials -- and he didn't blame one party or the other.

"We cannot ask Americans to be better citizens if we are not better servants," he said.

Mr. Clinton hit all the notes he and his advisers wanted to -- but at the cost of brevity. A speech that aides had estimated at 35 to 40 minutes went an hour and 21 minutes.

Former Reagan speech-writer Peggy Noonan compared it to Mr. Clinton's infamous and ponderous 1988 speech, when bored delegates at the Democratic convention cheered when Mr. Clinton uttered the words, "In conclusion . . . "

And in the Republicans' rebuttal, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman began by quipping, "Before I begin, let me assure you I am not going to ask for equal time."

But Mr. Clinton, two years into his term, obviously felt he had much to say; he is at a pivotal point in his presidency, and aides said he wanted to show that he'd gotten the message Americans sent Nov. 8 -- that they want a less expensive, more efficient government.

Mr. Clinton also tried to demonstrate that the needs and desires of the vast middle class have been on his mind all the time.

"In these efforts, I have made my mistakes and learned again the humility in all human endeavor," he said. "But I am proud to say that, tonight, our country is stronger than it was two years ago."

He then spoke of the economic progress of the past two years, lower federal budget deficits and unemployment, and higher productivity.

He called on Congress to enact limits on everything from gifts to lawmakers from lobbyists to the total amounts of money spent on campaigns -- all in the name of reducing the power of special interests and increasing the influence of ordinary Americans.

In a bit of political theater that Democrats in the audience appreciated, Mr. Clinton illustrated this issue by challenging Congress to simply forgo gifts from lobbyists -- a favorite target -- of talk radio hosts -- even if they don't get around immediately to enacting a ban into law.

Democrats, who have been blasting Republicans on this issue, stood immediately, shouting and clapping. On the Republican side of the aisle, Republicans looked over, then urged their colleagues to get up and applaud, too. They did.

Moments later, the tables were turned when Mr. Clinton spoke of Americans' desire for a leaner and more efficient government.

This time, Republicans, led by Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, rose as one and roared their approval.

Behind him on the dais, Vice President Al Gore and Speaker Newt Gingrich appeared at times to be on a kind of see-saw -- one would rise in applause as the other sat on his hands in silence.

The image underscored the fact that last night, Mr. Clinton was facing a joint session of Congress very different from the one he spoke to a year ago, when he confidently outlined his ambitious health care plan.

That night, he held aloft his pen, threatening theatrically to veto any plan that fell short of guaranteeing universal health insurance to every American.

That sweeping plan, however, disappeared and is rarely

mentioned by White House officials -- except as an example of what went wrong in 1994. Gone, too, are the Democratic majorities that applauded so loudly at the line about his veto.

Last night, Mr. Clinton spoke to a Congress controlled by Republicans who are particularly skeptical of this president.

But Mr. Clinton offered the Republicans a hand of partnership, telling them he believed the American people want politicians to put aside "partisanship and pettiness and pride."

The president himself practiced what he preached last night, making a point at the beginning of his speech turning to face Mr. Gingrich and congratulating him on becoming House speaker with the Republican takeover of Congress.

Turning back to the assembly, he added good-naturedly, "If we agree on nothing else here tonight, we must agree American people voted for change in 1994 -- and in 1992. And looking out, I know how some of you must have felt in 1992."

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