Trying to move beyond Clinton's shadow

Democrats: Aiming for the Oval Office, the vice president seeks to show he's his own man, while the president hopes to polish his legacy

January 23, 2000|By JONATHAN WEISMAN

WASHINGTON - As Bill Clinton delivers his final State of the Union address this week, Al Gore will likely be perched prominently behind him, indelibly linked to an aggressive presidential agenda that holds both promises and perils for the vice president's White House campaign.

The State of the Union address, scheduled for Thursday, will come at a pivotal time for Gore, sandwiched between the Iowa caucuses tomorrow and the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary.

As president of the Senate, Gore will sit directly behind the spot where Clinton will stand, which is either a blessing or a curse as Gore steps up his effort to establish his identity.

"It frames the dilemma very sharply," said Donald Kettl, a government professor at the University of Wisconsin's LaFollette Institute for Public Affairs. "For over an hour, Gore will be visually associated with Clinton, just as he's distancing himself from the man."

Gore advisers do not appear excited by the prospect.

"There's nothing he can do about it," said Elaine Kamarck, the Gore campaign's senior domestic policy adviser. "That's his job."

But Gore aides say the up side to the spectacle will far outweigh the down side. The vice president's policy staff has been given tremendous input into the address and the White House's 2001 budget that will follow Feb.?.

At the same time, there are potential pitfalls. An address heavy on proposals to help the poor - what Clinton has called his "new opportunities agenda" - could leave Gore open to Republican criticism that he is an old-fashioned "tax-and-spend liberal."

When the president announced recently that he would seek a $21 billion expansion of the earned income tax credit for the working poor, GOP front-runner George W. Bush shot back, "The Clinton administration spends money every day, it seems like. If you look at the newspapers and look at the programs, there is always another program."

Clinton's aggressive campaigning on the agenda's behalf could compete for attention with Gore's campaign. Joint appearances with Clinton have led to style comparisons that have not helped Gore, as senior Clinton aides concede.

"It's why all vice presidents have had an uphill road until they can establish themselves as a large enough, substantial enough presence," said one senior Clinton aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Working out an agenda together is one thing. Being presidential is another test we can't help with,"

Clinton has tried to help. His agenda will prominently feature proposals taken straight from the Gore campaign.

They include expanding health insurance coverage for the working-poor parents of children eligible for federal health care aid, and significantly increasing the value of tax breaks for businesses that invest in low-income city neighborhoods.

The president has gone out of his way to credit Gore with some proposals. An executive action to shield airline whistle-blowers from prosecution came from an air traffic safety panel chaired by Gore. When Clinton traveled to Wall Street recently to call for investment in poor city neighborhoods, he implied that he was doing so at Gore's behest.

Also, Clinton has begun turning over the spotlight. Gore has been tapped to announce that the administration will seek major funding increases for home health care for the elderly and nursing home inspections.

The president recently sent Gore to the United Nations Security Council to unveil a $100 million aid package to combat AIDS in Africa, a move that appealed to two key Democratic constituencies gays and African-Americans.

That same day, Gore unveiled a $50 million proposal to clean up the Great Lakes, a boost for the Gore campaign in the primary battles in Michigan, New York and Ohio.

Such gestures will undoubtedly become more frequent this spring and summer, if Gore secures the Democratic nomination but is left with little campaign cash to generate publicity, predicted Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University.

President's dilemma

Clinton will be fighting for his own headlines, in his effort to secure a positive historical legacy that will shine through the clouds of scandal.

"Being a lame duck is going to be difficult for Bill Clinton," Wayne said. "It's a big dilemma: How does he give Gore the spotlight from April to the Democratic convention" and still pursue his place in history?

With every Clinton policy move will come the inevitable media question for Gore: Do you agree or disagree? The Clinton and Gore teams can work together on political set pieces like the State of the Union address and the budget, but political surprises will likely lead to tension.

"One thing that's clear is that Bill Clinton is not likely to go riding quietly into the sunset," Kettl said "He is inevitably competing with Gore. Every Clinton headline is a headline that Gore doesn't get. And it raises the question of whether Gore needs to embrace or distance himself from the proposals. It's a very, very touchy situation."

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