`Goals worthy of a great nation'

President urges funds for education, health, a $350 billion tax cut

His final State of the Union

A mix of lofty rhetoric, broad appeal and ideas unlikely to clear GOP

January 28, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Not once alluding to the end of his term, President Clinton used his final State of the Union address last night to lay out an activist agenda for his eighth year in office, offering a conciliatory tax program to his Republican adversaries while urging the nation to seize this moment of prosperity "to build the more perfect union of our founders' dreams."

The epic 89-minute address -- the longest of his presidency -- soared at times into rhetorical abstraction as Clinton sought to frame a political future that would long outlive his term.

"Tonight is special," he declared, "because we stand on the mountaintop of a new millennium. Behind us, we see the great expanse of American achievement; before us, even grander frontiers of possibility."

Such verbal flights of fancy and lofty proposals did not necessarily reflect the realities of an administration in its waning months, still scarred by scandal, still battling a recalcitrant Republican Congress and rapidly becoming eclipsed by the political race to succeed it. Republican leaders have signaled that most of his new proposals will never pass.

A scattering of empty Republican seats were filled by staff members. Not one member of the Supreme Court was in attendance, the first total no-show in recent memory, except for 1986, when President Ronald Reagan's speech was rescheduled because of the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.

But Clinton was clearly determined to remain optimistic, ignoring the finality of the moment.

And if the rhetoric was occasionally grandiose, the laundry list of new spending priorities and tax cut proposals was reminiscent of the nuts-and-bolts addresses of Clinton's past -- a potpourri of propositions designed, in part, to burnish his legislative legacy, in part to influence this election year's political debate.

They ranged from a bipartisan call to "close the digital divide" on Internet access to a highly contentious last-minute proposal to require all new handgun owners to obtain licenses that certify that their backgrounds have been checked and that they have passed a gun-safety course.

Clinton's political inspiration for those proposals may have come from activist Democratic administrations of the past, but his rhetorical muse was a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt.

"At the dawn of the last century, Theodore Roosevelt said that `the one characteristic more essential than any other is foresight,' " Clinton told an audience of lawmakers, Cabinet members and citizens. "Tonight let us take our long look ahead and set great goals for our nation."

As the president sees them, those goals include a "21st-century revolution" in education; an end to child poverty; universal preschool and after-school programs; good affordable health care for all; a reversal of global warming; rendering the United States the safest big country in the world; and eliminating the nation's debt by 2013.

Unprecedented opportunity

With a surging economy creating fortunes and sending once-unimaginable sums of money to Washington, it would be difficult to argue with Clinton's contention that "the state of our union is the strongest it has ever been."

In four days, the nation will officially be enjoying its longest economic expansion in history. Projections for budget surpluses above and beyond those garnered through Social Security payroll taxes range over the next decade from $838 billion to $1.9 trillion.

That windfall has produced unprecedented opportunities for the "long look ahead" that Clinton suggested as well as the short term.

Clinton's agenda includes ambitious and expensive new proposals, including a $110 billion health insurance expansion; a $30 billion College Opportunity Tax Cut; a $25 billion tax credit to repair and modernize up to 6,000 schools; and a $21 billion boost to the earned income tax credit for the working poor.

He asked for a $2.8 billion increase in science and technology research funding, including a $1 billion increase in biomedical research. He proposed a $1 billion dollar expansion in Head Start, the largest ever; a $1.3 billion effort to help farmers protect the environment and preserve agricultural land; an $850 million expansion of his signature AmeriCorps national service program; even a tax credit to spur the development of vaccines for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Those spending proposals are just the beginning, and they offer Democratic candidates voter-friendly proposals to take into the election season.

Credit for Gore

Clinton was careful to acknowledge his chosen successor, Vice President Al Gore, a half-dozen times. Indeed, the president's one slip was his thanking Gore, who was seated behind him, for efforts to make communities more "liberal." Clinton quickly corrected that to say "livable," amid roars of laughter.

And the president credited Hillary Rodham Clinton, a candidate for the Senate, for voter-friendly initiatives, such as pushing a uniform ratings system for children's entertainment.

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