The challenge of President Clinton's state of the union address

January 27, 1998|By David Kusnet

When President Clinton strides toward the podium tonight to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress and the country, don't be surprised if he gives a great speech.

He always does. Especially when he's under pressure.

In February 1993, after a shaky start as president, he spent an entire day rewriting his address to a joint session of Congress presenting his economic plan -- and, then, he improvised, anyway.

Seven months later, his TelePrompTer displayed the wrong speech when he presented his health-reform plan to another joint session. So he winged it again.

And, in January 1994, he delivered his first State of the Union address not long after media coverage of alleged scandals akin to those bedeviling him now.

All three speeches were well-received by the public and the media. Tonight's may succeed, too.

An activist again

Even before the latest firestorm, Mr. Clinton was planning to use this address to change the course of his presidency -- from the cheerful minimalism of the past three years to something closer to the activism of his first two years.

So he'll face this challenge tonight: to elevate his presidency again by talking about big ideas.

Mr. Clinton needs to rediscover structural problems -- from stagnant wages, to increasing inequality and declining educational attainments. He has also been worrying about his historic legacy and congressional Democrats' criticism that his centrism left them with an agenda gap.

So, if his announcements over the past month are any guide, he'll put new issues on the table, from expanding Medicare to folks 55 or older to providing child care for millions more working families and hiring tens of thousands of new teachers. Perhaps he'll propose raising the minimum wage again, or exploring a new ''wage insurance'' program for workers downsized out of good-paying jobs.

All this requires a rhetorical reversal by a president who has spent the past three years proclaiming the nation never had it so good and, besides, ''The era of big government is over.''

Last year's State of the Union address showed how even Mr. Clinton can have difficulty simultaneously minimizing the nation's problems and making the case for ambitious programs.

Mr. Clinton began by claiming credit for good news of all kinds -- more jobs, less crime, reduced welfare rolls and world peace. Then, he declared, the nation still faces ''a challenge as great as any in our peacetime history,'' explaining, ''The enemy of our time is inaction.''

One year later, as he prepares to offer his most ambitious agenda since 1994, he'll need a better rhetorical balancing act. He should take pride in a stronger economy and a more stable society, but acknowledge the problems he attacked in 1992: stagnant living standards and growing gaps between the wealthy and the middle class and between mainstream Americans and the poor.

Sure, that's another rhetorical shift, but, as before, Mr. Clinton can tell himself, with some accuracy, that it flows from long-term strategy as well as short-term necessity.

A smaller government

Mr. Clinton may have dreamed of being a president who achieved lasting social and economic reforms. But he took office at a time when doubts about activist government exceeded demands for progressive change. The government was drowning in deficits. Citizens were cynical about politics. And the Democrats' own working-class constituency was divided along racial and cultural lines.

So Mr. Clinton's greatest accomplishment, to use a phrase he favors, was ''lifting the burden'' that recent history has imposed on Americans.

Yes, Mr. Clinton could have been much bolder.

In his meetings with intellectuals and his musings with journalists, Mr. Clinton repeatedly remarks that he wants to help America move into a new progressive era. Just as government once helped Americans adjust to the growth of the national economy and the industrial age, Mr. Clinton often says, it now must ease the transition to a global economy and an information age.

But Mr. Clinton's latest initiatives represent a passive progressivism. Gone are the promises from his 1992 campaign to follow the example of earlier progressives and regulate corporate America at home and abroad -- from limiting exorbitant executive salaries to including guarantees of human rights, labor standards and environmental protections in labor agreements.

Looking to the future

Thus, Mr. Clinton is unlikely to create a framework for fairness in a new economy, as did Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, or build lasting institutions, as did Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. But he can pride himself on making it easier for future presidents to advance the agenda he was elected to achieve.

So, tonight, Mr. Clinton is likely to tell the nation something like: ''For all our successes, America still has a job to do.''

And he'll tell himself: Even if my luck holds out, I may not be the president who builds that ''bridge to the future.'' And, even if the worst happens, I've cleared some of the barriers to progress.

David Kusnet, a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, is a former chief speech writer for President Clinton. This is an excerpt of a Los Angeles Times article.

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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