Bit in his teeth, Clinton gallops over GOP with New Year initiatives Congress in recess, president in charge

January 09, 1998|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After relaxing in the islands for five days, President Clinton returned to the capital this week with an ambitious "to-do" list and a noticeable bounce in his step.

In his first three days back, Clinton announced that he would submit the first balanced budget in 30 years, lower the age of eligibility for Medicare and expand support of child care.

In doing so, Clinton has suddenly put the Republican Congress on the defensive -- and issued a pointed reminder that he is firmly in control of the national agenda.

"It's a great time to do it," says Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University professor who has studied how presidents communicate effectively.

"Congress is out of session, which means your critics are hard to reach, and you can establish priorities -- and do so on your own terms."

Clinton has certainly done that this week, and the response of Republican leaders scattered around the country has been disorganized, bordering on dispirited.

On Monday, when the president announced that he would submit a balanced budget this year, some budget experts even predicted that there might be a small surplus.

The Republican response consisted of a rambling speech by House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Georgia, in which the Republican leader appeared to call for using the surplus to reduce the $3.8 trillion national debt and to enact a new tax cut every year.

Tuesday, when Clinton proposed expanding Medicare to Americans as young as 55, Republicans reminded voters that Medicare is in danger of going broke.

But they suggested no alternative proposal to help retirees whose companies renege on promises of health insurance.

By Wednesday, when the president proposed $22 billion in new spending on child care, the Republicans all but conceded him the field.

Instead of pointing out that Clinton had provided no details on how to pay for this program, the few Republicans in town issued news releases insisting they, too, "care" about America's children.

"Anytime he does anything, he seems to leave us in disarray, but that says more about us than it does about him," says Eddie Mahe Jr., a Republican political consultant.

"But what he's doing is a technique -- it's not leadership -- and what's interesting about what he's proposing is that all these items seem to be traditional big-spending Democratic programs."

White House officials disagree. They say they remain committed to a balanced budget and their proposals are carefully targeted to address crucial national needs. That will be an ideological debate fought out -- yet again -- after Congress returns to town.

What both sides agree on is that Clinton has silenced the recent buzz that this administration had run out of steam.

In recent weeks, some commentators suggested that the president had grown bored with the job he has held for five years, was looking ahead to life after Washington and would be )) content to golf away the rest of his term.

Hearing such talk, Republicans expressed hope that Clinton would become a lame duck whose liberal impulses could be kept in check by a Republican-controlled Congress and his own preoccupation with various investigations.

It was all nice and tidy. But somebody forgot to check with Clinton.

Before Christmas, he held the longest news conference of his presidency and tried to jump-start his stalled initiative on race relations. In the first workweek of the new year, he's been a man on a mission.

And, as the White House begins its annual preparation for this month's State of the Union address, top aides promise that additional -- and substantive -- proposals are on the way.

"As you can see, the second term is just getting going," Gene Sperling, the president's senior economics adviser, says with a smile while outlining the Medicare proposal. "And I think the one thing we've put to bed is any notion that we don't have a lot of new ideas, a lot of new initiatives, a lot of new things to help the American people."

Carroll Davenport, director of the YWCA in Gettysburg, Pa., who was one of those invited to the Wednesday child-care event in the East Room, says she found Clinton "interested, excited and knowledgeable" about child care.

Davenport says the president spoke animatedly before the ceremony both with the child-care experts present and with a handful of telegenic children.

"The president knew the issues and talked from the heart," adds Rhea Starr, another YWCA official present at the White House.

"He was very much into what he was saying, and the plan he proposed was completely in line with the thinking developed at the White House conference on child care. He is very engaged in this issue."

Clinton could barely contain himself at that event. Surrounded by his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and by Vice President Al Gore and Gore's wife, Tipper, Clinton prefaced his own remarks by rhapsodizing about the "joys of being president."

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