Rousing words, little action Cautious Clinton gives everybody a bit of something

State Of The Union

February 05, 1997|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Standing before Congress and the nation last night, President Clinton was a profile in pragmatism.

His frequent use of phrases like "the 21st century" and "the Internet" had a visionary ring. The numbers he tossed out -- an "unprecedented" $51 billion for education -- sounded impressive.

But Clinton's call to action was firmly planted in reality. More than anything, his State of the Union speech reflected the limits that constrain the first Democratic president in more than a half-century to win re-election.

Hemmed in by a Republican-controlled Congress, a budget still bleeding red ink and an atmosphere tinged by more than a hint of scandal and partisan bickering, Clinton largely ducked the toughest challenge facing his generation: the long-range funding crisis in Medicare and other costly social programs.

Instead, he served up a little bit of something for everyone. But, befitting an era of tight budgets, only a little.

For liberals, he proposed to restore some health and disability benefits for legal immigrants that were cut by the welfare reform law he signed last year.

For New Democrats, he called for moving 2 million more welfare recipients off the rolls.

For conservatives, he vowed a balanced budget.

For reformers, he backed campaign finance overhaul (though even the authors of the plan he endorsed admit their chances for success are dim and Clinton's own credibility in this area is, at best, questionable).

For business, there were offers of tax breaks for hiring welfare recipients. For welfare recipients, conversely, the promise of jobs.

For workers, more time off for children's doctors appointments and parent-teacher conferences.

For the poor, health coverage for their children. For middle-class parents, tax breaks for college bills and a call to read a bedtime story to their sons and daughters each night.

In airing these proposals, Clinton was making good on many of his 1996 campaign pledges.

At the same time, he did speak out against one highly popular proposal: the Republican-backed balanced budget amendment.

Most striking of all, perhaps, was what he didn't say.

As the first baby boomer president and the last president elected before 2000, Clinton is, in a real sense, a transitional figure. He is that bridge he loves to talk about and brought back again last night.

And with his final election campaign behind him, some of his most staunch supporters had hoped he would turn his attention to the looming funding crisis in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. But Clinton referred to those problems only in passing, by signaling his intention to buck the issue to an undefined "bipartisan process" and acknowledging that finding a solution won't be easy.

Will Marshall, head of a Democratic think tank with numerous links to Clinton, called the failure to tackle those issues a "conspicuous" omission and "the biggest area of disappointment" in the speech.

But Marshall had praise for other elements of the speech, including the president's call for creation of new national academic standards for public education.

The president's heavy focus on education last night highlighted the sharp contrast between the first and second Clinton terms.

Four years ago, Clinton went before Congress and boldly sketched his blueprint for "fundamental change." The centerpiece of his administration was to be a radical overhaul of the health care system, presided over by his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

That ambitious, and expensive, plan came crashing down in a political disaster.

Last night, Clinton declared that his "number one priority for the next four years" would be "to ensure that all Americans have the best education in the world."

Clinton's use of the "bully pulpit" of the presidency may be his strongest weapon in that fight. The federal government's role in education is limited. Fewer than 10 cents of every public school dollar comes from Washington.

Education is among the public's biggest concerns. Clinton's assertion that "politics must stop at the classroom door" won predictable applause from the assembled legislators.

But the president's proposal to spend $12 billion more on education next year faces uncertain prospects in Congress. Even if Clinton managed to obtain his total education funding request -- $51 billion, a figure that includes his proposed tax breaks for middle-class college students -- that's still pocket change in a nation that spends roughly a half-trillion dollars each year on education.

In his inaugural address last month, Clinton declared that America was demanding "big things" from Washington. But his speech last night, complete with the sorts of small things that are often belittled (school uniforms, making the year 2000 a "national celebration of the American spirit"), sent a different message.

Between the lines of his lengthy address, full of references to a bold, new future, Clinton seemed to returning to an old theme: that politics is the art of the possible.

Pub Date: 2/05/97

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