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The Importance of the Speech

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, January 19, 1999; Page A19


One high White House official describes President Clinton's State of the Union address tonight as "a substance shock for the country."

His point is that after months in which not only coverage of the president but almost all the news has been dominated by scandal, it will come as a surprise to hear a solid hour -- or given Clinton's proclivities, more -- about such matters as Social Security, education, health and child care and job training.

That's why the president resisted postponing his speech while the Senate deliberates on whether to throw him out of office. It's not just that aides have always said it's his favorite speech -- it's so chock-full of policy. Nor is it just that this address has always made his poll ratings go up.

In the current circumstances, this speech would seem to put Clinton on the majority side of a large divide in the country. The White House sees it this way: "They," meaning mostly the Republicans and the media, want to talk about the impeachment trial. "We," meaning the president, his party and the apparent majority, want to talk about matters that, as the Clintonites like to say, "affect people's lives."

The speech will underscore the utter strangeness of the Senate debate. The Senate tries to pretend it's a body of neutral "jurors." It's an absurd metaphor, as Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) pointed out. Almost every senator would be disqualified from a real jury for bias, one way or the other. And any judge would toss them right out of the courtroom for all their outside-the-chamber chatter for the benefit of television, radio and the newspapers.

While the "jury" deliberates, most members of Congress, on matters ranging from tobacco taxes to Social Security, act as if Clinton will be the president they'll be dealing with once the Senate unpleasantness is over. This is true despite the generally good revues won by the House managers for their presentations last week.

Make no mistake: All the players are preparing for the post-impeachment world. While the public focus has been on the trial, the underlying political situation has changed substantially.

Take Social Security. A year ago, the conventional buzz saw the idea of creating individual accounts carved out of Social Security as on the ascendancy. Privatization plans proliferated. Supporters of Social Security as it currently exists voiced dark fears that the Clinton administration would cave in to the privatizers.

The privatizers overplayed their hand, unleashing a wave of organizing by their opponents. Clinton administration interest in privatization, to the extent that it existed, waned. Now, White House officials predict that any Social Security reform the president gets behind will be designed to save the system as it is. He may then propose new incentives for private savings, or savings accounts parallel to Social Security that augment pensions, especially for middle-income people and the poor.

The administration is still walking a careful line on Social Security. As one official says, Clinton wants to "keep the Democrats on board" by committing to the existing system, but also "extend a hand to Republicans" by addressing the issue of private savings. One of the challenges of the State of the Union speech is how to balance these objectives to keep the possibility of Social Security reform alive after the Senate finishes the trial.

Or take the HMO users' bill of rights, which would give patients more opportunities to challenge treatment decisions by managed care plans. The proposal failed in the last Congress, but it was a useful issue for many Democrats in the congressional elections. Bruce Reed, the White House domestic policy director, notes that the bill lost so narrowly in the House that the addition of five new Democrats in November gives the proposal at least a theoretical majority now.

Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) is a big supporter of the patients' bill of rights. He went along with his party's efforts last year to water it down, but says this year he'll cooperate with Democrats in holding fast for a stronger bill. He also insists that new House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) sympathizes with his view, despite Hastert's mixed signals last year. Whether Norwood is right about Hastert or not, his statements suggest that the political winds have changed.

The political winds also seem to be blowing in favor of more federal action on after-school programs, job training and education. Clinton is counting on those winds to be at his back, both in surviving the Senate trial and in rebuilding his presidency after it's over. So to understand the drama of this address, don't watch it just as the president's plea for Senate clemency. Even more, see it as a bid to rescue his final two years in office.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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