Clinton seizes the high ground

State of the Union: President shows no signs he acknowledges being lame duck

sets ambitious agenda.

January 29, 2000

WHATEVER HAPPENED to "Clinton fatigue"? Bill Clinton's personal travails and impeachment were supposed to turn him into an ineffective lame duck in the final two years of his presidency.

Yet there was no sign of a fading presidency when Mr. Clinton gave his eighth and final State of the Union address Thursday evening.

Indeed, his high job-performance ratings continue to astound his critics, just as he continues to frustrate -- and outfox -- Republican leaders in Congress.

One reason is his unerring feel for the public's priorities. Thus in his speech he emphasized education and health care. He knows how to seize the high ground, too, even if it means adopting Republican positions, such as in his call for reducing the "marriage penalty" tax on two-income households.

The 89-minute speech showed Mr. Clinton at his oratorical best, mixing his vision of the future with specific requests sure to catch public attention.

He gave Congress a litany of spending plans -- his vision -- that have no chance of passage. But he also included achievable requests: A law protecting patients in managed-care health plans; prescription-drug coverage for aging Americans; enhanced education aid for local schools; and a $1 increase in the minimum wage.

And he added an unexpected call for licensing and training of new handgun purchasers. It's a sensible notion that should play well with a public increasingly alarmed at the proliferation of guns, but it's a non-starter in a Republican-dominated Congress.

As a political document, Mr. Clinton's speech gave Vice President Al Gore's candidacy a boost by laying out an activist agenda in line with Gore campaign themes.

The president was careful, though, not to tilt too far left: Hence, he again stressed the need to pay down the federal debt as the best way to ensure prosperity.

This year's elections work to Mr. Clinton's advantage. Republicans in Congress don't want to be labeled as the party of negativism. They need a record of achievement. That gives Bill Clinton the upper hand.

There's no sign of a lame duck on the horizon.

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