Clinton on the offensive State of the Union: President ignores his travails in setting ambitious social agenda.

January 29, 1998

A MARTIAN, newly arrived on Earth, would never have guessed that the man delivering the State of the Union address Tuesday night had been under intense and prurient media scrutiny in a budding "sex, lies and audiotapes" controversy that has shaken his presidency. What that visitor saw was a long and detailed agenda by Bill Clinton for the final three years of his presidency focused on expanded social programs aimed at helping the nation's middle class.

Not a word about that other story, the one mesmerizing television journalists and Washington print reporters. President Clinton spoke over their heads to the American public about government policy issues that apparently struck a chord with viewers. Polls showed an overwhelmingly positive response.

The president seemed to hit the right notes: more teachers to cut class sizes in the early grades; more school construction; increased child care subsidies to parents and businesses; more prosecutors and probation officers to combat juvenile crime; letting 55- to 64-year-olds buy into Medicare health insurance; increased child-support collections; a big boost in research to fight cancer and other diseases; and the biggest applause line of the night, protecting the Social Security system.

That last item served as the centerpiece of his speech. Many of his proposals stand little chance in a conservative Republican Congress. Much of his spending depends upon passage this year of a major tax increase on tobacco -- a speculative assumption. Other proposals break budget spending caps. In all, the president's wish list would cost $45 billion.

But on Social Security, Mr. Clinton could win his argument. He wants to dedicate all budget surpluses -- projected at $200 billion over five years -- to building up Social Security reserves in anticipation of the 76 million baby boomers who start retiring in another decade. That's far preferable to Republicans' call for more tax cuts -- the surest way to resurrect deficits.

The president's plan could buy an extra eight years of solvency for Social Security, which is expected to exhaust all reserves by 2029. Equally important is Mr. Clinton's intention to shine a spotlight on this fiscal crisis at public meetings this year, in preparation for finding a solution after the fall elections.

Developing a public consensus may not be easy. Solutions could involve increasing payroll taxes, raising the retirement age to recognize increasing longevity, trimming benefits and letting individuals invest a part of their payroll taxes in the stock market. But there is little doubt Mr. Clinton will keep Social Security on FTC the national agenda until there is a resolution. If he succeeds, it could mark the high point of his second term in office.

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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