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Vision of 21st Century UndefinedBy Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 21, 1997; Page A01
If anyone doubted that President Clinton has fixed his sights on the history books, yesterday's inaugural address should put that to rest for good. In the last inaugural address of the 20th century, Clinton attempted not just to define the future but also to seize the next century as his own.
Clinton went to the Capitol with grand ambitions for the remainder of his presidency: to be remembered as the leader whohelped guide America through the uncertainties of a changing world into "a land of new promise" in the next century. That can only happen, he said, if racial division and political differences give way to a "new spirit of community" within the country.
Details will come later as he delivers his State of the Union address, offers his balanced budget plan and uses the bully pulpit of the presidency to shape opinion and action. But much remains to be done before he can hope to put his stamp on a new era. Yesterday, Clinton described a new world in which the problems of today have been solved. Beginning today he will be asked for the blueprint that leads to the solutions for those problems.
Four years ago, Clinton's inaugural address was an echo from his 1992 campaign, a clarion call for change and a focus on jump-starting a sluggish economy. He promised nothing if not "bold experimentation" in attacking the problems of the country and paid a huge price for some of those experiments.
Yesterday's speech was rooted in the two elections that have occurred since he first took office, one in 1994 that brought Republicans to power in Congress, the other last November that marked his own political resurrection and gave him another chance to govern. The 1996 election, he claimed yesterday, settled a dispute about government largely in his favor, even though he ceded considerable ground to the Republicans over the past two years.
"We have resolved for our time a great debate over the role of government," he said. "Today we can declare government is not the problem, and government is not the solution. We, the American people, we are the solution." He went on to describe a government "humble enough" not to tackle every problem but "strong enough" to let people help themselves, a smaller, leaner government that nonetheless protects American values at home and abroad.
Whether the debate over the role of government has been resolved in his favor is an interpretation Republicans may choose to contest over the next four years. For within the boundaries he described lie a thousand battles of his second term, and the answer not only to whether he or the Republicans in Congress define the future but also whether the future will be as enticing as he tried to make it sound yesterday.
All he said was that, in his land of new promise, "our grandparents have secure retirement and health care and their grandchildren know we have made the reforms necessary to sustain those benefits for their time."
The president said in an interview last week that he does not believe restructuring the entitlement programs should begin with him offering his own solution. But there are consequences of the changes ahead that will require leadership far more explicit than he was prepared to offer yesterday.
Clinton rarely offers direct challenges to the people; he prefers to play the preacher and the conciliator. But his speech underscored how much his own vision depends on the collective participation of the people rather than the dictates of government.
"There is work to do, work that government alone cannot do: teaching children to read, hiring people off welfare rolls, coming out from behind locked doors and shuttered windows to help reclaim our streets from drugs and gangs and crime, taking time out of our own lives to serve others," he said. In Clinton's formulation, every American must assume responsibility "not only for ourselves and our families, but for our neighbors and our nation."
That is the spirit of community that animates his vision of the future. What goes unsaid for now is who organizes these efforts, who funds them and who becomes accountable for their success or failure. And how much a president can shape that spirit with rhetoric rather than programs.
Where Clinton was clearest was in describing his belief that racial harmony and bipartisan cooperation are the keys to successfully shaping the future. "Our rich texture of racial, religious and political diversity will be a godsend in the 21st century," he declared, and the ceremonies on the West Front of the Capitol bore testimony to his hopes.
But Clinton warned that "the divide of race has been America's constant curse, and each new wave of immigrants gives new targets to old prejudices. Prejudice and contempt cloaked in the pretense of religious or political convictions are no different. . . . We cannot, we will not succumb to the dark impulses that lurk in the far regions of the soul everywhere."
Since his reelection, the president has talked about cooperation and giving voice to America's vital center. Yesterday he again called for greater civility in the conduct of politics in Washington. Noting that the voters reelected a Republican Congress and a Democratic president, Clinton said, "Surely they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore."
Congressional leaders from both parties share Clinton's desire to begin his second term on less acrimonious terms than existed during much of the past four years, but those hopes have been complicated by the partisanship surrounding the ethics investigation of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
The House will vote today on whether to reprimand the speaker, as the ethics committee recommended. But it will take time to determine whether there are lasting effects. And while the president knows his second term depends in part on cooperation between the parties, he also knows that Republicans are looking for signs of goodwill from him beyond rhetoric.
Clinton appears to be betting that in an age of scarce resources and distrust of big government, he can still summon America to great things. That was the challenge he laid out in his 22-minute address yesterday. His campaign was a succession of small ideas and incremental steps toward change. What he showed yesterday is that in his own mind they add up to something significant. He has four years to prove he is right.