By David S. Broder
Members of Congress, Republicans as well as Democrats, helped by bobbing up and down in the traditional amen chorus that has bolstered chief executives for decades. The proverbial visitor from Mars never would have guessed that rumors and accusations of the most serious kind were swirling around the head of the composed, gray-haired man who held forth for more than an hour to a worldwide television audience.
"He looked like a guy who is still in charge," said Tim Hibbits, an independent pollster in Portland, Ore. "It was an impressive display of his ability to concentrate on the task at hand."
Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) was critical of the content of the speech but described its presentation as "very presidential. I think he was very smart not to say anything [about the controversy] and to stay with his agenda. I think he performed very well."
Whether this proves to be only a temporary respite from the troubles that broke on Clinton last week, or a turning point, no one can judge. But if history is a guide, this State of the Union night will take its place with other such revealing moments in the Clinton saga.
From the untested newcomer who faced his first joint session of Congress on Feb. 17, 1993, to the embattled chief executive who entered the House chamber for the sixth such occasion last night, Clinton can trace the extraordinary ups and downs of his White House tenure through his State of the Union addresses.
Each of those past speeches provided a sharp -- but usually temporary -- boost in his public support, something he covets now as he faces the worst scandal since he came to Washington.
Some past speeches have heralded significant policy victories or successful political strategies. But there also have been fiascoes and uncounted disappointments -- statements that boomeranged and pledges that remain unfulfilled years after they were made.
Last night, Clinton combined lofty rhetoric with a barrage of spending proposals certain to appeal to Democratic constituencies. Hailing the "good times for America," he promised "balanced budgets as far as the eye can see" and challenged Congress to save the surplus funds until the future of Social Security is assured by bipartisan reforms.
The package was skillfully crafted over months when Clinton largely controlled the political playing field. Its reception became much more important when the controversy over Monica Lewinsky suddenly threatened to knock the props from under his presidency.
The political stakes for this State of the Union could not have been higher.
However much Americans have been distracted by tales of sex in the White House and supposed subornation of witnesses, "this is still a bully pulpit to have," Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said before the speech last night. "It gives the president his opportunity to tell people his version of what comes next in the post-balanced budget environment.. . . . This is his chance to set the terms of a new political debate."
Republican pollster Linda DiVall said Clinton faced a triple challenge. "He has to try to regenerate respect for his presidency," she said. "He has to reenergize his party by giving Democrats a solid agenda they can embrace. But he also has to generate some bipartisanship. He needs help from other people. This can't be a singular moment for him."
After the speech, DiVall said she judged Clinton more successful in firing up the Democrats than in reaching out to Republicans, whose response she characterized as "respectful but not enthusiastic." As for restoring personal respect, she said, "It all depends on whether people can remember it five days from now or whether it is swept away by new personal revelations."
In other years, when the State of the Union address also tested his mettle, Clinton had mixed success. The attack on deficit spending that was the focus of his first address to Congress in 1993 now allows Clinton to claim at least part of the credit for the first balanced budget in three decades, an achievement that drew bipartisan applause last night.
His 1996 State of the Union declaration that "the era of big government is over" provided an armor of conservative rhetoric Republicans were never able to dent during his successful reelection campaign.
But there have been times when his political instincts failed him -- and the backlash caused him and his party serious damage. Few Democrats have forgotten Clinton's standing at the lectern on Jan. 26, 1994, pulling a pen from his pocket and declaring, "If you send me legislation that does not guarantee every American private health insurance that can never be taken away, you will force me to take this pen, veto the legislation and we'll come right back here and start all over again."
Then-Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) had pleaded with Clinton privately to make no such threat. When the Clinton health plan was shot down in 1994 without even the formality of a floor vote, Foley and scores of other Democrats were defeated. The Republicans won both houses of Congress that November for the first time in 40 years.
In the wake of that historic loss, Clinton came back to Congress on Jan. 25, 1995, and delivered a rambling, 82-minute address that showed he had not yet recovered from election shock or the prospect of having Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) looking over his shoulder. Though admittedly "humbled," he offered a hodge-podge of new initiatives. Republicans dismissed them almost scornfully and said the real agenda would be found in their "Contract With America."
A year later, it was Republicans who were embarrassed. The budget dispute and shutdowns of the federal government that carried through the Christmas holidays of 1995 had proved hugely unpopular. Clinton brought with him to Capitol Hill a poignant symbol of the furloughed government work force, Richard Dean, a survivor of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. When Clinton said, "On behalf of Richard and his family, I challenge all of you in this chamber: Never, ever, shut the federal government down again," the TV cameras panned the faces of congressional Republicans, whose grim looks were a testament to their belated recognition of their folly.
Last Feb. 4, the reelected Clinton was riding high on a buoyant economy, with the strongest approval ratings he had achieved up to that time. "More than any other State of the Union [time]," Democratic pollster Garin said that night, "the president approached this one on his terms -- and with much more of an opportunity to define the political environment than to be defined by it."
This year, White House aides admitted privately, weeks of carefully scripted efforts to roll out a succession of appealing Clinton domestic initiatives were overwhelmed in the first 48 hours after it was revealed that Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr was investigating allegations by a former White House intern that Clinton and attorney Vernon E. Jordan Jr. had urged her to lie about an affair she said she had with the president. All of it has been denied by Clinton. But the State of the Union, originally seen as the peak of a drive to put the president clearly in control of the national agenda, became under the altered circumstances an effort to salvage a bad situation.
Even last year, when the environment posed no such dangers, Clinton's success with the Republican-controlled Congress proved to be spotty. "Let this Congress be the Congress that finally balances the budget," he said in his 1997 State of the Union address, and it was -- with a big assist from the booming economy.
But other goals Clinton set forth are unfulfilled. The heart of his speech was a 10-point "call to action" on education, which he termed his top priority. The budget boosted federal spending from Head Start to college aid, but because Clinton said "far more than money is involved," he also asked for major new programs, most of which have been blocked.
He wanted national standards and national tests, a million-member literacy corps, a $5 billion school-construction bond kitty and many other things Congress has refused. The juvenile crime bill he asked for has been substantially revised -- but not enacted. The "fast track" trade negotiating authority he said was vital to "open markets to our goods and services" has been stymied by opposition in his own party.
The president also asked Congress to give him a bipartisan campaign finance reform bill he could sign by last July 4. No bill has passed the House or Senate or even been reported from committee. In a biting statement last night, Ellen Miller, head of one reform group, Public Campaign, quoted similar pleas from Clinton in all his previous State of the Union addresses, and added: "The president's focus on raising millions of dollars from wealthy special interests for the Democratic Party speaks volumes about his lack of commitment to meaningful campaign finance reform."
Nonetheless, Clinton asked again for passage of a bipartisan bill. On this, as on many other fronts, his credibility will be tested in the weeks ahead.
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company