Clinton turns attention to faiscal issues

President beats drum for his plan to shore up Social Security

Trip to N.H. begins today

White House, GOP square off for debate over spending surplus

February 18, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With the impeachment trial behind him, President Clinton turned in earnest yesterday to his legislative agenda, preaching the virtues of his Social Security proposal to a crowd of young people at the White House and once again declaring the moment "a season for renewal."

The Social Security event was the first true policy address since his Senate acquittal, and it kicked off a flurry of presidential activity.

Today, he makes his first post-impeachment domestic foray out of Washington with a sentimental journey to New Hampshire, where he once proclaimed himself "the Comeback Kid."

Tomorrow, after an Oval Office meeting with French President Jacques Chirac, Clinton will hold a brief news conference, the first at the White House since Oct. 28.

And early next week, GOP congressional leaders will meet with him to discuss legislative issues and symbolically bury the hatchet.

"This is a time for renewal," Clinton declared, after an extended speech that was heavy on dry policy talk and light on politics. "I hope we make the right decisions."

Clinton is far from out of the woods.

His Social Security plan is under attack from a Republican Party worried about the political cost of impeachment and anxious to engage Clinton in a policy debate.

His legal battles continue with a threat this week from U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright in Arkansas that she may cite him for contempt of court.

And the press' attention is more focused on his wife's political future than his own.

The highlight of the Social Security event may have been when Virginia Sen. Charles S. Robb lamented the retirement of New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan next year, then turned to Hillary Rodham Clinton and said, "All I can say to New York is I hope you can find someone of similar intellectual stature."

But the president appeared yesterday to relish what he called "a great debate" between his proposal to use three-quarters of the burgeoning budget surplus to reduce the national debt and the GOP proposal for an immediate broad-based tax cut. And he made a remarkable plea for a president supposedly disgraced and hobbled by scandal and impeachment: Trust me.

He acknowledged that the Republican call for a 10-year, $743 billion tax cut may sound more appealing than debt reduction and staving off insolvency in Social Security and Medicare.

But, he added, "in defense of our plan, I think we ought to be at least entitled to the benefit of the doubt, based on the last six years."

Clinton has set himself up as a prudent fiscal conservative staving off a politically popular but reckless tax cut, but the poll-driven president clearly knows that his position is more popular than he is willing to admit.

The president's pollster, Mark Penn, said yesterday that his polls show the public favors Clinton's proposal over a large tax cut by four or five to one. Even confidential GOP polls indicate the Republican tax cut drive is appealing only to core conservative voters, not critical swing voters.

Neither Clinton nor his aides appear to be ducking the trust issue. Penn insisted yesterday that the public trusts Clinton to look out for its interests, and Penn pledged that Clinton "is going to be an activist on all fronts" in his final two years in office.

Home of `Comeback Kid'

While Clinton has yet to address his impeachment at length, he has alluded to it in myriad ways, such as yesterday's call for renewal and today's trip to New Hampshire.

White House aides insist it is only a coincidence, but it was exactly seven years ago today that Clinton eked out a second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary after being clobbered by accusations of draft-dodging and Gennifer Flowers' charges of marital infidelity.

On Feb. 18, 1992, at a Merrimack, N.H., hotel, Clinton declared that New Hampshire had made him "the Comeback Kid."

"I may not be perfect," candidate Clinton said at the time, "but I'll hang in there and fight until the last dog dies."

It turned out perhaps to be the secret of his success, and no doubt, Penn said, Clinton will relive those days when he holds a private luncheon in Merrimack, then joins Democratic Party stalwarts for a fund-raising dinner tonight in Manchester.

"There's something special about New Hampshire for the president," acknowledged White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

But for now, Clinton appears determined to talk more about the future than the past. He insisted his proposals for Social Security and Medicare would harness today's robust economy to preserve a safety net for generations to come.

Sharp cut in federal debt

According to the administration, the president's plan would reduce the $3.7 trillion in federal debt held by the public by nearly $3 trillion over the next 15 years. By then, that portion of the federal debt would be the smallest percentage of the nation's economy since 1917.

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