Clinton sells his vision Speech sidesteps controversy that threatens president

Ambitious agenda outlined

Emphasis on record of U.S. prosperity, peace, achievement

State Of The Union

January 28, 1998|By Carl M. Cannon and Paul West | Carl M. Cannon and Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Staff writers Jonathan Weisman and Mark Matthews and news researchers Robert Schrott and Andrea Wilson contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Ignoring the sex scandal that has rocked his administration, President Clinton outlined an ambitious national agenda last night in a State of the Union address designed to serve notice that he wants to be an activist president until the day he leaves office.

The signature proposal of the speech was Clinton's pledge to use "every penny" of an expected $200 billion budget surplus over the next five years to help ensure Social Security solvency for the tens of millions of baby boomers who will soon begin retiring.

"What should we do with this projected surplus?" Clinton said. "I have a simple four-word answer: Save Social Security first!"

The hall was packed, as is customary, but this year members of Congress were intensely curious about how Clinton would conduct himself a week after being accused of having had a sexual relationship with a White House intern.

Hours before he addressed the joint session of Congress, his personal secretary, Betty Currie, had testified to a grand jury looking into the president's sexual behavior -- and possible perjury and obstruction of justice charges against him.

Clinton began somewhat tentatively, but buoyed by the reception -- applause more than 90 times during a speech that lasted an hour and 12 minutes -- he appeared to relax noticeably as he went on.

His remarks -- and his delivery -- seemed designed to elicit the strongest and most positive response from the audience in the House chamber.

He referred repeatedly to the accomplishments that he and Congress had made together, including last year's historic balanced budget agreement.

Clinton began by paying tribute to two California congressmen who died recently, one a Democrat, Walter Holden Capps, the other a Republican, Sonny Bono.

Then, near the end of his speech, he singled out Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, who will soon return to outer space at age 77.

"Godspeed, John Glenn," he said, repeating the historic line uttered by Mission Control when America's first man to orbit Earth was launched in 1962.

At another point, the president lauded the contribution his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has made on the issue of child care. Looking at her from the podium, the president referred to her as "America's first lady," then mouthed the words "Thank you." Gazing down from the visitors' gallery, she beamed back.

Clinton hailed the strength of the economy and focused on a six-year record of peace, prosperity and achievement, outlining an exhaustive list of challenges still facing the nation. He also issued a stern warning to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein not to continue his defiance of United Nations weapons inspectors.

"With barely 700 days left in the 20th century, this is not a time to rest; it is a time to build the America within reach," he said.

Even before the current controversy, Clinton's speech had been intended to shape the way historians would view his legacy.

White House officials also saw it as a way of establishing the nation's spending priorities for the years ahead, even though most of the initiatives he outlined last night had been announced previously and none require large outlays of tax dollars.

The speech dealt with an array of issues, ranging from racial tensions to global climate change.

Some, such as assistance to communities hard-hit by factory closings, were pet Democratic issues; others, such as reform of the Internal Revenue Service, were tailored for Republicans.

Among the highlights he proposed:

* Raising the minimum wage again. White House officials said it might be next week before a figure is announced. The minimum wage is $5.15 an hour; congressional Democrats have proposed increasing it by 50 cents an hour in each of the next three years.

* A new clean-water initiative. Clinton wants to help states control runoff from farms and urban areas that have been blamed for toxic contamination, such as last summer's Pfiesteria outbreak in Maryland. The plan would create incentives to encourage farmers to adopt techniques to help protect water quality.

* A $1.15 billion increase in funding for biomedical research and a 50 percent increase in the budget for the National Institutes of Health over the next five years.

* Calling for a halt in the campaign fund-raising "arms race." Clinton asked Congress to approve the McCain-Feingold measure, which would bar unlimited "soft-money" campaign contributions. The president also said he would ask the Federal Communications Commission to provide free or reduced-cost air time for candidates in return for the government's granting of new digital TV licenses to broadcasters.

* Challenging the Congress to pass a comprehensive tobacco settlement that would raise cigarette prices $1.50 a pack over 10 years and target teen-age smoking. Noting that 3,000 young Americans will begin smoking tomorrow, Clinton threw down this gauntlet: "Let this Congress be remembered as the Congress that saved their lives."

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