Clinton pledges education as No. 1 priority President urges action in State of the Union

State Of The Union.

February 05, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON SUN STAFF WRITERS FRANK LANGFITT AND KAREN HOSLER AND RESEARCHER ROBERT GEE CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- Invoking "a national crusade," President Clinton called last night for a sweeping federal effort to bolster education in America, starting with impoverished preschoolers and extending all the way to upper-middle-class families sending their children to top-dollar universities.

"I pledge to take this call to action to our country so that together we can make American education, like America itself, the envy of the world," the president told Congress in the first State of the Union address of his second term.

Clinton's hourlong speech was a compendium of proposals, observations and exhortations tested by pollsters, fine-tuned in focus groups and perfected by the president and Vice President Al Gore on the campaign stump in 1996. But the centerpiece of the speech -- strengthening and widening access to education -- evoked Clinton's own political roots in Arkansas, where his main focus was on improving public schools.

"The highest threshold to the future we now must cross, and my number one priority as president for the next four years, is to ensure that all Americans have the best education in the world," Clinton said.

Asserting that "diversity is our greatest strength," the president also appealed for racial harmony -- at almost the precise moment, coincidentally, that a verdict was being rendered in the racially charged civil trial of O. J. Simpson.

Moments later, Rep. J. C. Watts of Oklahoma gave the official Republican response. Watts, the only black Republican in Congress, lauded the nation's diversity, too. Recalling the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Watts said simply, "We're all God's children." Mostly, however, he stressed the familiar Republican refrain of returning power to states, local governments and families -- and away from Washington.

"The strength of America is not in Washington," Watts said.

Watts also urged passage of the proposed balanced budget amendment, which Clinton opposes. The president, in one of the few negative passages in his speech, had asserted, without elaboration, that the amendment would "threaten" Social Security.

Responding that the $5 trillion national debt is "immoral," Watts told voters not to believe "dire warnings about the amendment wrecking Social Security."

With last year's re-election behind them, however, the tension between Clinton and Congress seemed to have been put aside, at least temporarily. As the president addressed the chamber, the partisan clapping and booing competitions of past State of the Union addresses were absent.

Call for cooperation

For his part, Clinton repeated his call for a new spirit of cooperation in Washington.

"We must work together," he said. "The people of this nation elected us all. They want us to be partners, not partisans. They put us all right here in the same boat, they gave us all oars and they told us to row."

Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican, said he agreed with Clinton's sentiments but expressed skepticism that the president would be able to rein in his own partisan instincts.

Rep. Robert L. Livingston, a Louisiana Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, poked fun at the sheer breadth of Clinton's proposals. "A computer in every home, a chicken in every pot -- it was reminiscent of Huey Long," he said.

Marylanders react

Reaction among Maryland's congressional delegation fell largely along party lines.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, praised Clinton for focusing on such goals as balancing the budget and setting )) education standards that both parties can support. "I thought the president's speech was very well-received on both sides of the aisle and sent a strong bipartisan message," Cardin said.

"I was extremely disappointed in what I heard tonight," countered Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican. "This was the Bill Clinton of the first two years. It was a very expensive speech."

Emboldened by the highest public approval ratings of his presidency, Clinton began by telling Americans they have much to be thankful for, including a sustained economic recovery, declining crime rates, shrinking welfare rolls and "unrivaled peace and prosperity all across the world." But in a speech that dealt primarily with the impending arrival of the 21st century, the president also cautioned that America was at a crossroads.

"My fellow Americans, the state of our union is strong," he said. "We face no imminent threat, but we do have an enemy: The enemy of our time is inaction."

'Unfinished business'

The first steps, the president asserted, are to complete what he termed the "unfinished business" of his first term. They are: Balancing the budget, not with a constitutional amendment or accounting tricks, but with what he said was an honest and detailed six-year plan that he is to send to Capitol Hill tomorrow.

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