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'My Election Will Be Overwhelmingly Focused on the Future'

Sunday, August 25, 1996; Page A19
The Washington Post

Following are excerpts from a Washington Post interview Wednesday [Aug. 21] with President Clinton focusing on his plans for a second term, should he win reelection:

Q: One question I have is your approach to the presidency. You're somebody who is a student of history; you're somebody who has spent really a whole life reading biographies of the great presidents. Yet, you've also said in the State of the Union address that the era of big government is over. My question is, how do you fashion sort of a large presidency --

A: With a smaller government?

Q: -- in an era of smaller times. How do you be[come] an FDR or a Theodore Roosevelt and not a Millard Fillmore or a Chester A. Arthur -- nothing against those guys -- in times like this?

A: That was great. Well, first, let me say what I think the job is, what the president's job is. This is an unusual moment in history, when the realities of American life and the realities of America's relationship to the world changed simultaneously in ways that were related, so that you had the end of the Cold War with the growth of this global economy and a global information age that's sort of bound people together with rapid movement of ideas, of information, people and money across national borders and the rapid movement of problems across national borders.

At home, you have had the sort of traditional big industrial age -- has been giving way to a new, more entrepreneurial information age, technology-driven economy for the last several years, and these things were coming together, so that the job of the president at this moment in history is to move America into the 21st century, dealing with both of these challenges in a way that preserves opportunity for everybody in the country, brings the country together instead of letting it be divided the way so many countries are by racial and religious and ethnic tensions, and maintains our leadership -- not only our economic leadership, but our leadership for peace and freedom.

That is the job -- making that transition -- and it requires a different approach domestically and a different approach in foreign policy. In terms of government, when I say the era of big government is over, what I mean by that is that the era in which the federal government believes that all problems can best be solved by adding another federal program administered by federal bureaucracy is over. I do not believe that we need a weak federal government, I just think it needs to be less bureaucratic and can use fewer people, and it should rely more on partnerships with communities -- that is, partnerships with the state government, with the local government, and with the private sector, because a lot of the answers to our problems, a lot of the solutions are, by definition, community-based answers.

So I've never been an advocate of a weak federal government, but I've been an advocate of a smaller one, where people got more for less, in effect, where the productivity went up and the way of dealing with things went up and we became more community-based in our approach. That's why, even though I never expected it to have any traction, I guess, politically -- and I don't think it has -- this reinventing government effort has been very important to me, because it has been -- made it possible for us to do a lot of what we've done -- you know. By reducing the number of federal employees, that's helped to make it possible for us to put 100,000 police on the street. And that's just one example.

But I don't think we want a weak federal government when -- people like the idea that when I tell them the SBA's [Small Business Administration] cut their budget, all right, significantly, but we've dramatically increased our loan volume, including a huge expansion in loans to women and minorities to start new businesses. So we want a different, smaller, less bureaucratic, less rule-oriented federal government and one that's more oriented toward partnerships.

If you look at a lot of our environmental initiatives, you see that we've worked -- instead of just trying to set up a bureaucracy to regulate the auto companies, we've worked to regulate the auto companies, we've worked with the Big Three, for example, to develop a clean car that will triple the car mileage we've got now.

We've got this project, Excel, where we are working with more than 50 different companies now to devise a system in which they can, in effect, throw the EPA rule book away if they will agree to let us test on a regular basis to see that they're meeting the same or higher environmental standards.

So the era of big government is over in the same way that America and the world will no longer be dominated, necessarily by big, bureaucratic, centralized private companies. But we still need a very strong government that plays a positive role and basically focuses on giving people the tools they need to make the most of their own lives and to build strong families and strong communities at home, and then deals with the new security challenges for the United States abroad.

Making a Major Change
Q: Well, you don't write the history, the historians do. But if you could, at the end of the second term, what would you hope they would write?

A: I would hope that they would say that for second time since the beginning of the Republic, during these years, America had made a major change in the way people worked, lived, and related to each other and the rest of the world moving into the 21st century, still the dominant country in the world in terms of opportunity and influence, and that this change had been made for only the second time without a major war catalyzing it, the first time obviously being under Theodore Roosevelt's administration.

That's what I would like them to say. And I would like them to talk about how we learned how to grow the economy with balancing the budget and having lower interest rates and a dramatic expansion of trade, that we learned how to educate a lot of our -- we have the most diverse, big country in the world, we learned how to educate all of our people in a way that gave them a chance to participate in this so that we restored mobility for all groups of people in our society again.

I would like for them to write that we found a way to solve the conundrum -- the big social conundrum of our time, which is how to balance work and family and how to succeed at work and raising children. And our health care reforms would be a big part of that, or the small business pension retirement reforms would be a big part of that. Our success in driving the crime rate down would be a big part of that.

I would like for them to write that we made a dramatic expansion of educational opportunity and quality in terms of early childhood, higher standards in the school years, accessing technology in a way that increased learning in isolated urban and rural areas through hooking up all of the classrooms to the Internet. And perhaps most important, making college education universal. I would like to start with the next two years with my proposal for the $1,500 tax -- the $10,000 deduction, my proposal to get rid of all of the separate Labor Department training programs and create a G.I. Bill for American workers and give people a skill grant if they lose their job, if they're grossly underemployed.

If I get another term, I'm going to put an enormous amount of effort into education because I think it is the key toward binding us together and lifting all of us up.

So those are the kinds of things that I would like people -- to be said. And I hope that -- one last thing I would like to say is, on the welfare, I would like for it to be said that we ended poverty in America. We still had poor people, but we no longer had an isolated culture of poverty. That we found a way to have able-bodied people with low levels of education and difficult circumstances and their young children get an education, go to work, and still do right by their children in a way that ended this sort of -- literally, this physical isolation that's been building up over the last 30 to 35 years in our country.

Therefore, I think the signing of this welfare reform bill, as I've said to many people, is the beginning, not the end, of the process because now it's no longer a political issue to be kicked around between Republicans and Democrats, or for politicians to kick poor people with. Now, it's everybody's responsibility again, and everybody has to belly up, and we have to find ways to really break into that whole culture, break it down and lift people out of it by their own efforts.

Breaking the Culture of Welfare
Q: Mr. President, on that note, I mean, the signing of the welfare bill in some way is a kind of a symbolic ending of the Great Society, by which I mean a way of looking at how government approaches problems. Is there a Clintonesque replacement for that, that we will see in the second term?

A: Well, there's certainly -- I have in mind what I think should be done, and I will say in some detail the things that I'm prepared to do as president in my speech in Chicago. But keep in mind what we're ending here. What we're ending is a 60-year-old system that has been modified over time, that was developed for families that are almost -- there are almost no families like that on the system anymore. Senator [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan [D-N.Y.] said so many times, a typical, original welfare recipient was a West Virginia miner's widow, whose husband died in a mining accident and she had a fourth-grade education, no one ever expected her to work, she had a lot of little kids. Welfare gave them a basic sustenance while the kids grew up.

Now, interestingly enough, that system still works for a fair number of people. Almost half the people on welfare, it still works for, as I've said before. They get on for a while, then we go help them, then they get off and go and do fine. It's the other people we're trying to reach. And keep in mind that we have not abandoned the federal commitment to invest in those people. What we've abandoned is the federal commitment to a system which guarantees all of them a certain income -- which, by the way, has been dramatically eroded anyway over the last 20 years. I mean, the difference is ridiculous. You get $655 a month for a family of three or four in Vermont, and $187 in Mississippi, I think. So this idea that there's this uniform system for the poor through the welfare check is not right. We haven't abandoned the food stamps for welfare people. We haven't abandoned, most important, medical care for people on welfare. And we have increased our commitment child care for people on welfare.

Also, when these folks begin to go in the work force, they'll be eligible for the education and training monies that are otherwise available in the states, and that I'm going to propose.

But what we have done is we've said to the states, okay, you now have to go back from community to community and you have to create a new system and you have to involve people in it. And I think -- we've tried to identify what things we still should be doing to help the communities succeed in doing that, and what things that the private sector is going to have to do. And it will be a real test of not only the welfare reform, but this new way of governing that I think will have to dominate our dealing in social issues in the 21st century. But, to me, we're just beginning this work. We now have to prove that we can do it.

But let me just give you one simple example -- I've cited this over and over again. I've been pleading for two years for every state to ask us for permission for a waiver to do what now they can all do. If we expect all these folks who are able-bodied to work, and we know that the economy has a certain level of unemployment, even though it's quite low now by historic standards -- the most obvious thing they should all do is what Wisconsin proposes to do and what Oregon has started to do, which is to take the welfare check and to give it to any private employer that will take it, or a reputable private employer. And it's a wage supplement. But they have to pay the welfare person, obviously, more than the check would be worth. And they get the supplement for a period of time -- nine months, a year, whatever -- during which time the welfare recipient acquires work experience, the experience of something to put on a resume and, possibly, a full-time job when the supplement runs out.

Now, that's the sort of thing I'm talking about. There's a lot of other things we could be doing, as well. But it's a big issue. And every -- every church, every synagogue, every community organization, every business should be challenged to take a hard look to see if they shouldn't participate in this if they get that sort of deal. If they all did, one on one, you would then change the whole physical reality of life for welfare families. And we would actually then, I believe, be able to break the culture -- we would literally change the culture and we would prove that this gamble was right.

If some states just say, well, we're just going to save the money, not spend any more than we have to and we don't care whether people are in the streets, then I think there will be an immediate reaction from the public and the federal government may have to do something to alleviate that.

Now, there are other problems with this welfare bill that don't have anything to do with welfare that I want to change: the immigration provisions and the nutritional provisions as they relate to low-income working people and single men, many of whom could be rendered homeless by those things. But that's off the side. Just look at the welfare reform. I see it as a model of what we need to do and where we need to go in dealing with our challenges in the future.

Meeting Shared Goals
Q: Do you have in mind any other areas that you would use . . . as a model in a second term in terms of specific domestic agenda items?

A: Well, we certainly tried to do it in a related area just in terms of developing the economy of the inner cities, which affects not only people on welfare, but other people who are in low-income jobs because there's so little investment there. So I think, in general, we need to do more.

That's what the whole empowerment zone concept was about. It was about the federal government would try to set up a framework within which others could come in and fill in the blanks, if you will. And I think that when you're dealing with distressed areas, you have to do that. And I think we should do more there.

As I said, I'd like to see more of the kind of environmental partnerships we started here. I think that we've done a good job with the meat standards, with the Clean Air, Safe Drinking Water Act, the Pesticide Protection Act. There are certainly areas where the federal government should still set standards. But we've also, like the meat standards, given more responsibility to people in the private sector. And so I would like to find new ways to meet shared goals, where we decide at the national level the "what" that needs to be done; and either the state or local government or the private sector decides the "how," that the "how" is accountable if we decide the "what."

And I think you will see that in a lot of other areas. We did that a little bit in our Goals 2000 legislation in education, where we -- and in the way we reformed Chapter One, the aid to poor children in schools, both public and private, throughout the country. We're letting the schools have more flexibility as long as they agree to be held accountable to certain results. And I think there should be more of that. . . .

Dealing With Entitlements
Q: As you are certainly aware from your own reading of history, second terms of presidencies often have faltered, in part because they campaigned on for reelection talking more about what they felt they had accomplished than what they really wanted to do in a second term. How much will you, in this campaign, talk about what you want to do? . . . Challenge the American people on some big ideas and, in particular, I think about the entitlements issue. Will you make that something that you'll want to take on in a second term and talk about it in this campaign?

A: Let me answer that question and then come back to the other question, the entitlements.

Yes, I will, but I believe that those who believe that the looming question facing this -- and that America may not measure up -- are grossly underestimating the American people, and I think overstating the dimensions of the problem. There's a lot of money involved, believe me. If we don't deal with the entitlements, we can go broke, all right, someplace down the road. But I believe the next -- whoever is president the next four years will have no choice but to deal with the entitlements. If we don't get a balanced budget this time and fix Medicare for at least a decade, we're going to have a terrible headache. But my balanced budget does that.

And then I believe what we'll have to do is to watch it very closely for the next couple of years and see whether or not the dramatic lowering of inflation and health care costs generally finds its way into the Medicare program.

As to Social Security, we have a huge generational problem coming up because the baby boomers are all going to retire, so we'll have to make some adjustments. But what we ought to do is do just what was done in 1983, not the details, but the mechanism: Put together a commission of people representing all the interests, force them to come to grips with the population problem of the baby boom and what's going to happen in 2019, and anybody can see that if you make changes now, they can be much smaller changes to have much bigger consequences than if you wait 10 years from now. And they'll come up with it, and we'll all do it. And so, I'm not worried about it, but, yes, it has to be a part of it.

Now, let me take the bigger question. I will talk about my record to point out that I did what I said I would do in '92 and the results have been positive. Then, I will talk about the things that we have that are not really part of my record yet because they're ongoing where there are differences between [Republican nominee] Senator [Robert J.] Dole and me. For example, he's tried twice -- they have -- when he was the Republican leader, first, to defeat my commitment to put 100,000 police on the street and then they tried to do away with it in their budget. So that's a thing in transition. Senator Dole and Congressman [Newt] Gingrich [R-Ga.] voted against the V-chip. And that's part of our whole effort with the entertainment -- and educational television, and that thing could be undone. And, of course, our anti-children's tobacco issue would certainly be undone. There's a commitment there.

So there are things that we have talked about and implemented, if you will -- started to implement, but they're in the process. And then, there are the things I want to do that build on what we've done in the first term, not just -- and in foreign policy, too -- whether it's the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which I still hope we can get this fall, or further initiatives against terrorism, and all those things that I've worked on there.

So the bulk of my campaign, however, as I'll make clear in Chicago, will be about the future because I don't think a politician -- particularly in a dynamic time, you can't be reelected just for doing a good job because people think that's what they hired you to do. `Thank you very much, but I gave you a check every two weeks; I hired you to do a good job, that was a condition of the job.'

So I think that the record is relevant because it shows that the direction is right, that we're on the right track. Then I think the record's important in terms of the things that are still in process because we don't want to reverse them. But I think the most important thing of all is what is going to happen? What will America look like when I'm not here anymore? What will America look like in the year 2000? Will we have made this great transition at home and abroad? Will we be at the center of a world that is more peaceful and more prosperous for ourselves and others because of the way I've tried to remake the world trading system and avoid blocks that were exclusive to one another? Will we be better off because of the way I've worked to end the unfinished business of the Cold War with the nuclear threat being diminished -- with North Korea's nuclear threat being gone, with Russia being a constructive relationship with China? Will we be making progress against terrorism and weapons proliferation and drug running and organized crime? Those are foreign questions. And then, will we be dealing with these huge issues that I mentioned here at home in a way that ordinary families have more power to build successful lives?

And I think these are very big questions. They may be -- the specific issues may seem small, but when you add them up, they're very big. The Family Leave Law and then Family Leave II that I want to do; the other pro-family initiatives; the tax relief we gave to low-income working families in the first term and the tax changes we want to make in the second term; the health care reforms that I still want to make, especially for families and unemployed people with children -- all these things together, I think, will amount to something very, very significant in terms of our making these big transitions to the 21st century if we do it and if I can complete this work.

My election will be overwhelmingly focused on the future. There's a difference record -- there's my record and Senator Dole's record, which I think is important. And I don't mind talking about my record and the difference between them. Then there wasn't much talk about that at their convention.

Then there are the things that are still in progress that could be undone. He would abolish the 100,000 police, AmeriCorps, the tobacco initiative and several other things. Then there are the new areas -- what's my idea for the future as compared with their across-the-board tax cut, which I think might give us higher growth, will explode the deficit, will lead to even bigger cuts than the ones I vetoed in their budget and will take us right back to where we were in the '80s. And you know, we'd have a balanced budget today if it weren't for the interest that we're paying on the debt run up in the 12 years before I came here.

So, I think that's clearly a mistake. And I want to focus on that, but I want it to be mostly about the future. I think elections should be mostly about the future. . . .

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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