Clinton says he plans to govern from 'center' in second term 1st speech since election lists balancing budget as No. 1 priority

December 12, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, outlining a second-term agenda in his first presidential-style address since his re-election, pledged yesterday to lead from the "vital and dynamic center" of America's political spectrum.

"I stand ready to forge a coalition of the center," he said. "And I invite people of good will of all parties -- or no party -- to join in this endeavor."

The president's remarks were delivered to the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, a group he once headed and which helped raise his national profile.

"We have clearly created a new center," Clinton said. "Not the lukewarm midpoint between overheated liberalism and chilly conservatism, but instead a place where throughout our history, people of good will have tried to forge new approaches to new challenges."

Besides calling for a new spirit of bipartisanship in Washington, the president provided a road map yesterday of where he hopes such bipartisanship will lead. He listed eight goals of his own for the next four years:

Balancing the federal budget while reforming Medicare and Medicaid.

Improving education and offering families assistance to pay for college.

Bringing the underclass into the "mainstream," in part by providing tax breaks to businesses to hire welfare recipients.

Lowering the crime rate.

Improving family life by curbing violence on TV and reducing teen-age smoking.

Restoring faith in government by passing campaign finance reform.

Sponsoring advancements in science and technology.

Making the world safer by combating terrorism and completing "the unfinished business of the Cold War."

In a 1991 speech to the DLC, Clinton had impressed moderate Democrats by outlining an agenda he described as "not liberal or conservative." But for two years after he was elected, many moderates complained that he governed like a liberal. They cited Clinton's support for gay rights and affirmative action, his refusal to cut middle-class taxes, his push for such big-government initiatives as national health care and his increase in spending for social programs.

A backlash came at the polls, where in 1994, voters swept into power in Congress Republicans who had targeted Clinton by name and had pledged to reverse years of Democratic-led social policy.

Last year, the president began meeting Republicans halfway on a host of issues, including the need for a balanced budget and an overhaul of the welfare system.

When Clinton spoke to the DLC a year ago, the Republicans were in the midst of passing a budget that Clinton called unfair to the poor and middle class. He vowed to veto it, and he did.

"That night, at midnight, the government was shut down," Clinton reminded his audience. "That day, I said the great question before us was, can the center hold? The answer is clear: The center can hold, the center has held and the American people are demanding that it continue to do so."

This has been Clinton's interpretation of the voters' message on Nov. 5 -- a night in which both he and the Republican Congress were returned to power -- since the election returns came in. He is not alone. A host of pollsters, including Frank Luntz, a leading Republican, have said it is clear that voters have wearied of partisanship and expect pragmatic bipartisan solutions out of Washington.

The president has said that balancing the budget -- a Holy Grail for the Republican congressional leaders -- is the No. 1 priority for his second term.

In addition, the major staffing decisions he has made so far reflect his desire to work closely with Republicans on Capitol Hill. He chose a Republican senator to join his Cabinet as defense secretary, selected a new secretary of state who is admired by conservatives on Capitol Hill for her toughness, and tapped as his new chief of staff a North Carolina businessman who consults with conservative Sen. Jesse Helms on pending White House initiatives.

Trying to govern from the center may be what the public wants, but it does make the president an inviting target for members of both parties.

Just this week, Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros wrote a blistering letter to the Office of Management and Budget, complaining about preliminary plans to cut HUD's budget. On Capitol Hill, liberals from the Northeast reacted angrily when they learned of White House discussions about phasing out heating-oil subsidies for the poor and elderly.

Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary, downplayed the significance of such complaints, saying they were part of the normal tug of war of the budget process and that final decisions were not being made yet. Without mentioning either HUD or heating oil, Clinton himself left no doubt yesterday that some belts would have to be tightened over the next four years.

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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