By John F. Harris
In a 72-minute State of the Union address, Clinton was interrupted by applause 104 times a vast relief to a White House team that had anguished about giving a nationally televised speech in the wake of the adultery and obstruction-of-justice allegations that engulfed Clinton last week.
Despite the tumultuous events leading up to the speech, it became clear within moments of Clinton's striding into the House chamber that the evening would proceed normally. The president struck a mostly bipartisan tone giving both parties credit for ending chronic budget deficits and appealing to both to save projected surpluses until they have hammered out a plan to keep Social Security solvent for the next century's baby-boomer retirees.
Yet there were also hints of the conflicts that likely lie ahead in this election year, when control of the House is expected to be closely contested. Republicans responded stonily when Clinton appealed for an increase in the minimum wage.
And GOP leaders afterward asked whether Clinton's domestic agenda suggested that he is prepared to revive an era of big government that he declared dead two years ago. In rapid-fire fashion, Clinton last night ticked off a variety of proposals that cumulatively amount to the most expansive agenda since the GOP majority captured Capitol Hill three years ago.
"With barely 700 days left in the 20th century, this is not a time to rest," Clinton said. "It is a time to build to build an America within reach. . . . An America which leads the world to new heights of peace and prosperity."
Yet in contrast to this sunny image, Clinton had dire words about the crisis with Iraq, which has been thwarting U.N. inspectors searching for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs. At one point he addressed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein directly: "You cannot defy the will of the world. You have used weapons of mass destruction before. We are determined to deny you the capacity to use them again."
Early in his speech Clinton floated an idea that White House officials are hoping will give him new leverage at a time when Washington's debate has suddenly pivoted away from a 15-year debate about how to cut the deficit. Noting that a strong economy was likely to produce budget surpluses by next year, Clinton put Congress on notice that he is not ready to consider either tax cuts or new programs that would draw on this money.
"What should we do with this projected surplus?" Clinton asked. "I have a simple four-word answer: Save Social Security first."
He endorsed a series of nonpartisan forums this year to build political support for reform, then said he would convene congressional leaders a year from now to craft legislation.
While Clinton's rhetoric often carried a triumphant tone, there were ample signs that it was an imperiled president addressing the nation. The televised commentary both before and after the speech focused almost entirely on how the speech would be seen by the public in light of the Monica Lewinsky controversy. Afterward, even some Republican critics said he had probably helped himself but warned that any boost would probably be temporary.
Delivering the Republican response, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) predicted that the battle over tax cuts and the intrusiveness of government would dominate the election-year agenda.
"Big government or families?" Lott asked. "More taxes or more freedom?"
Even though Republicans have been largely quiet about the latest allegations against the president many of them turned up the rhetoric after the speech. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), when asked what he thought about the president's speech, said: "He acts the part very well. When you're in trouble you do what you do best spend money."
Nearly all of Clinton's 1998 agenda had been rolled out in the days and weeks prior to the speech, either in presidential appearances or in news media leaks. Even so, it was Clinton's first chance to explain it to a national audience.
The budget he will release next week, he promised, will include more money to help schools hire teachers and reduce early-grade class sizes as well as to modernize and build new facilities. There are increased tax credits to help lower- and middle-income parents with child-care expenses.
Clinton also appealed for an increase in the minimum wage, though he did not endorse a precise amount by which the current $5.15-an-hour rate should be raised. "Because these times are good, we can afford to take one simple, sensible step to help millions of workers struggling to provide for their families," the president said. A White House official said Clinton plans soon to specify that he wants an increase of about a dollar phased in over several years.
Noting the recent financial crises in countries such as Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand, Clinton acknowledged that many Americans do not see how such problems affect them.
But he said the interconnectedness of the global economy means that stemming recessions and currency crashes in Asia is "the right thing to do for America."
Congress last year tabled Clinton's funding request for the International Monetary Fund, which has moved to stabilize Asian currencies, in an unrelated battle over abortion. Last night, Clinton pleaded with lawmakers to change their course. But the response was muted.
Clinton said he is hoping for a bipartisan solution to one issue that is certain to dominate this year's congressional agenda: whether to enact a comprehensive settlement with the tobacco industry.
Clinton said a settlement in which cigarette makers would receive some immunity from lawsuits in exchange for a multibillion-dollar payment and various restrictions on the industry would "help parents protect their children from the gravest health threat they face: an epidemic of teen smoking, spread by multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns."
As he has announced previously, Clinton endorsed using a combination of taxes and sanctions on the industry to raise the price of cigarettes by a $1.50 a pack in the next 10 years.
Clinton is counting on passage of a tobacco settlement which most independent observers consider at best a questionable prospect to raise some $65 billion in new money for the government in the next five years, budget officials said. He is counting on much of this money to pay for new domestic initiatives this year.
Clinton faces a precarious political balance this year. Aides say he is eager to repair his sometimes fractious relationships with House Democrats and advance an agenda that will help them draw clear partisan lines in the debate with Republicans. One of these items is a plan to expand the Medicare health-care program to allow people as young as 55 buy into the program early. Some Republicans laughed at Clinton's assertion that doing this would not cost the government a dime.
Many on both sides of the aisle cheered when Clinton presented a so-called Consumer Bill of Rights for the health care system, an idea that has already inspired a formidable array of business opponents. The bill would impose new rules on managed-care plans, known as health maintenance organizations, including a requirement that they let patients know more about treatment options, regardless of cost.
"Medical decisions should be made by medical doctors, not insurance company accountants," Clinton said.
There was one issue on which Democrats held their applause as most Republicans cheered Clinton's pledge to renew the fight for authority to negotiate trade agreements on a "fast-track" basis. Apparently tailoring his remarks to Democratic skeptics, Clinton said he wanted to ensure that trading partners meet higher environmental and labor standards.
But he vowed to press ahead on his free trade agenda. "Change is not always easy, but we have to reap its benefits," the president said. "And remember the big picture: While we have been entering into hundreds of new trade agreements, we have been creating millions of new jobs."
The speech was laced with several personal moments. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was applauded by both sides when Clinton recognized her in the gallery and praised her work with children.
But by far the biggest ovation went to former astronaut Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), who recently won approval from NASA to make a return to space.
Clinton started his address by noting the absence of two lawmakers who recently died: Reps. Walter Capps (D-Calif.) and Sonny Bono (R-Calif.).
Sitting with the first lady were several guests of the White House, including Harold Varmus, the director of the National Institutes of Health, and Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles (D).
Clinton will have an early chance to see how the public is reacting to his proposals in the new, scandal-charged environment. He is heading this morning to the University of Illinois and this afternoon will go to LaCrosse, Wis., before returning to Washington.
Although the personal controversy surrounding Clinton was not in his speech, it was on the minds of those listening to him.
"It was a speech designed to go over the heads of the Republican Congress and rally the American people," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.).
"With the deficit behind us," he said, "it was difficult for the Republicans not to deal with education, the minimum wage and Social Security."
Given his personal problems, "the speech breathed some strength into his own supporters in Congress. It was not only a compelling agenda, but also a definite morale boost. Others gave him favorable, if grudging, marks. Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) would say only, "He did okay."
Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) was critical of the speech's substance, saying, "He's already spent the substance 40 times." But he acknowledged that in political terms it was "a very strong performance. . . . To that end, he has every reason to be proud."
Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) called it "a very effective speech." But asked if it defused the Lewinsky controversy, Levin hedged, "Those are two separate issues."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company