Clinton audience tonight is likely to be a record State of the Union may draw 120 million

'The stakes are enormous'

January 27, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Tonight, President Clinton may draw the largest audience ever for a State of the Union speech. For all the wrong reasons.

Millions of viewers will be waiting to see if Clinton mentions the crisis revolving around his sex life. They'll check his composure. They'll scrutinize the reaction on Hillary Rodham Clinton's face. And they'll watch the way he's greeted by members of Congress, especially nervous fellow Democrats.

But will anyone be paying attention to Clinton's agenda?

Under normal conditions, the speech -- an annual ritual that evolved out of a constitutional requirement that the president report periodically to the Congress -- would attract an audience of about 80 million television viewers. That number could easily swell to 120 million tonight, White House advisers say, after a full week of unprecedented media attention to the most intimate details of the president's alleged sexual misbehavior.

"The stakes are enormous for him right now," says Don Baer, who was Clinton's communications director until late last year. "The country wants to see that he is in command."

Clinton is aware that questions about his personal life could make it difficult for Americans to concentrate on proposals he'll be announcing, aides said. On the minds of millions will be the allegations about a relationship between Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"He knows the American people will be thinking about that," said Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary. "They will, we hope, be interested in what the president proposes for the future of the country."

In an effort to clear the way for the speech, Clinton appeared at a White House event yesterday to emphatically repeat his denial that he had had a "sexual relationship" with Lewinsky. Aides say it's unlikely the president will made any reference to the alleged affair when he stands before Congress and the country tonight.

Instead, they say, he will take about an hour outlining his plans for the sixth year of his administration, historically an important one for two-term presidents.

Until the accusations emerged, Clinton had been carefully, and effectively, building up to the speech. It was designed as, and presidential aides still hope it will be, the launch pad for an ambitious '98 agenda.

For the first time in two decades, Clinton will boast, the federal budget will be in balance. And with his own legacy in mind, he will ask Congress to spend more for education and child care, protect the rights of patients in health maintenance organizations and expand Medicare.

But with his presidency under siege, he must first prove that he remains strong enough politically to deal effectively with a Congress that is in the hands of the opposition party, politicians and political analysts say.

Charles O. Jones, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, believes Clinton can help himself tonight if he can get viewers to focus on his policy proposals. The president's goal, he added, is to "convince the public to compartmentalize" the way it feels about him and "truly weigh [his policy proposals] against any behavioral flaws he's got."

Polls have shown that Americans hold just such a divided view of the president, who has been elected and re-elected despite questions about his character.

The public's approval of him as a person has lagged well behind the ratings he has gotten for the way he's performed his job. The most recent polls, which have yet to show that Clinton is in free fall, are giving his loyalists a measure of solace.

If history is any guide, Clinton's performance should improve the battered spirits of his backers.

Since the time, six years ago in the presidential primaries, when he successfully defended himself against allegations of womanizing and draft evasion, he has repeatedly confounded those who forecast his political demise.

"When his back is to the wall, he does the best," says David Axelrod, a Democratic political consultant from Chicago who advised the White House on Clinton's speech. "It's clear that he's in a fighting mood."

Another adviser, who has watched the president rehearse his remarks over the past few days at the White House, says Clinton is "absolutely focused" on the speech, "even more than in other years." His seeming ability to shut out the furor over his personal life "is really quite extraordinary," the adviser added.

Clinton will not be the first president to deliver a State of the Union message under fire. In 1974, near the height of the scandal that would force him to resign in disgrace seven months later, Richard M. Nixon ended his report to the nation with a personal message.

Vowing to remain in office, Nixon drew rousing applause from fellow Republicans -- and silence from most Democrats -- by calling for an end to the investigations into his cover-up of a 1972 campaign break-in and other abuses of power. "One year of Watergate is enough," he declared.

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