Clinton's `agenda for the decade'

His last State of Union to offer ambitious plan unlikely to pass in '00

`Focused on the future'

January 27, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton strides into the Capitol tonight to deliver the final State of the Union of his presidency, gone will be the dramas of his past addresses, the impeachment trial, the exploding sex scandal, the sense of drift and disarray.

Without the melodrama or political intrigue of the past, this year's speech will offer an ambitious legislative agenda for Clinton's final year in office that not even his top aides believe will pass on his watch.

"He'll be laying out an agenda for the decade," said Sidney Blumenthal, a senior White House aide, "an agenda that understands the new realities, that's visionary and practical. They may not all be reached this year, but they will be reached."

And where once the president could expect the nation to be riveted, this time he hopes only for a sizable television audience.

"The best we can do is put it out there and hope people watch," said Ann Lewis, a senior White House policy adviser.

For much of his tenure, Clinton has been a master of this venue: a rambling yet eloquent orator who used his epic State of the Union addresses to re-energize his presidency. Each year, the image of Clinton evoking cheers from a joint session of Congress has lent his presidency a stateliness it did not always convey.

Last year, as a Senate impeachment court stood in judgment of him, Clinton used the speech to try to prove that an expected acquittal would not, in effect,end his tenure in office.

Two years ago, Monica Lewinsky had just burst onto the scene. The day before his speech, Clinton wagged his finger at the television cameras, declaring, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Pundits and politicians alike were prognosticating on his survival.

But the 1998 State of the Union speech might have saved Clinton's presidency. It set down a popular political agenda, lifted his poll ratings and quieted the storm.

In 1995, after the Republican takeover of Congress, Clinton was thrown on the defensive, reduced to insisting before the annual address that he was relevant.

Two years later, he silenced critics who claimed that he lacked a vision for his second term, laying out a detailed legislative agenda while pledging to work with Congress to balance the budget.

Fighting nostalgia

This year, Clinton says he is simply trying, in the waning months of his presidency, to stave off nostalgia for past triumphs.

"I do feel some nostalgia," he allowed this week. "It's something I'm very much trying to fight off, because I think the important thing is to keep the attention of the country focused on the future."

Any drift toward nostalgia is not for lack of legislative initiatives. In tonight's speech -- and in his proposed 2001 federal budget to follow Feb. 7 -- Clinton will offer a 10-year, $110 billion health care initiative to provide coverage for at least 5 million uninsured Americans and to lower costs for those who have insurance.

He will request a $1 billion increase for the Head Start children's program, its largest such increase; an expansion of his signature AmeriCorps national service program; a $21 billion boost to the earned-income tax credit for the working poor; a $30 billion tax cut to defray the costs of college tuition; new efforts to combat infectious diseases and to find environmental causes of illnesses; an aviation safety initiative; and a program to bolster the enforcement of gun laws.

His education proposals will include $1.3 billion for the renovation of decrepit schools in high-poverty areas, a $120 million request to help districts create smaller schools, a $30 million program to enhance training for early childhood educators, and a $1 billion teacher quality initiative.

The president will push Congress to approve China's inclusion in the World Trade Organization and to send Colombia an aid package to combat drug traffickers.

At the same time, Clinton hopes to head off any major Republican tax cut by diverting most of the expected budget surplus into federal debt reduction.

The most ambitious of those proposals have little chance of passage in a year when Congress will try to do as little as possible, hoping to avoid any missteps that would alienate the voters.

GOP's moderate response

The Republican leadership has chosen to strike a nonconfrontational stance tonight, choosing two mild-mannered moderates, Sens. Bill Frist of Tennessee and Susan M. Collins of Maine, to deliver the GOP response to Clinton's address. A tacit agreement appears to have been struck between the White House and the Republican Party to hold the line on costly initiatives until a new administration can set a budgetary course for the 21st century.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who is chairman of the Budget Committee, scoffed at Clinton's agenda, saying the president has proposed 21 new programs worth $150 billion.

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