At uneasy time, Clinton to offer State of Union

Address will set goals for education, defense, health, Social Security

Back to `people's business'

President to extend olive branch, ask that scandal be put behind

January 19, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It will be a remarkable spectacle: The president of the United States will journey to the Capitol tonight to address a House of Representatives that has voted to impeach him and a Senate that is in the midst of sitting in judgment at his trial.

As late as 8: 30 p.m., the trial will adjourn for the day, and those jurors will march across the stately Capitol to listen respectfully to the man who has been under verbal assault since House prosecutors opened their case Thursday for his removal.

Some members of Congress from both parties favor President Clinton's delaying his State of the Union address, saying delivery at this sensitive moment would be unseemly. But the speech will go forward on the very day that Clinton's lawyers will begin his defense on the Senate floor.

"What's going on in the Senate right now is important," said Joe Lockhart, the White House spokesman. "The Senate needs to take care of the business before them. But the agenda and the people's business also has to go forward."

White House advisers never seriously considered postponing the president's once-a-year opportunity to speak at length to a national audience, without the filter of a skeptical media.

Some commentators have suggested that Clinton wait until after the trial to deliver a speech that would provide closure to the Monica Lewinsky ordeal. But White House advisers say he needs to act now to solidify his political standing before the Senate votes on whether to remove him from office.

By showing that he is concentrating his mind and his time on issues such as Social Security, health reform and education that concern ordinary Americans, White House officials say, Clinton will demonstrate to a national audience that he is ably at the helm of the federal government.

"He is a master of this venue," said Jody Powell, who was President Jimmy Carter's press secretary and is an informal Clinton adviser. "If I was in his shoes, I would absolutely use it. With a policy speech like this, he can make the point that the longer we spend churning around with this [scandal] stuff, the less likely these other things get done."

It was once difficult to imagine a State of the Union address wrapped in greater drama than the speech Clinton delivered a year ago. The presidential sex scandal had just burst into public view. Washington was awash in talk of resignation. The day before the address, Clinton had looked into television cameras, wagged his finger and sternly told the American people, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky."

The fate of his presidency might well have rested on his State of the Union speech, and Clinton delivered. He laid out a popular agenda. His poll ratings soared. And he quieted the storm somewhat.

This year's address again will be steeped in drama. Yet for a White House seemingly inured to crisis, it is beginning to seem almost commonplace. After all, White House aides said, Clinton faced tough questions in 1995 after the Republican takeover of both houses of Congress, in 1997 when critics complained that he lacked a vision for his second term and then, of course, last year.

A familiar moment

"Yet again, he is scheduled to do his State of the Union at a moment of high drama," said Maria Echaveste, a deputy White House chief of staff. "And he will show yet again to the American people that he has an agenda that they want."

Though the Senate will be in the process of deciding whether to remove the president from office, the sense of crisis has dissipated, congressional Republicans and Democrats agree. White House aides are increasingly confident that the necessary two-thirds of the Senate will not vote to convict Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Nevertheless, tonight's address is critical if Clinton is to regain authority with the Republican-led Congress, which, despite the president's high public approval ratings, may be in no mood to enact his policy agenda over the next two years.

"What is at stake is the balance of the Clinton administration," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank arm of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "I assume he will not be convicted and ousted. There will be two more years. What he has to do is lay out an agenda that goes to the heart of the biggest challenges facing the country and remind people that he is the indispensable actor."

The president's agenda

As he did last year before his State of the Union speech, Clinton has offered a preview of an agenda.

This year, education plans could dominate his proposals. Clinton is prepared to propose major revisions to the way the $20 billion in federal education spending is apportioned, rewarding school districts that adhere to guidelines on training teachers, enforcing classroom discipline, ending promotion of unqualified students and reporting school performance to parents.

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