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The State of the Union

Thursday, February 6 1997; Page A22


The State of the Union address is an opportunity that a president can use as he pleases. President Clinton chose Tuesday night to give a feel-good speech that mostly swept past the serious problems he and the Congress face. He bunched them at the beginning of the address under the heading, "unfinished business." That at least was right.

Is the problem balancing the budget? That requires "only your vote and my signature," he told the members (in part to dissuade them from taking the further destructive step of adopting a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution). If it also requires preparing the country for a little shared sacrifice, well, you wouldn't have known it the other night. He will send up a plan to balance the budget that will "invest in our people while protecting Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment" and leave room for a middle-class tax cut besides. If it's that much fun, you wonder why it didn't happen long ago.

Then there's the longer-term problem of what to do when, not that many years from now, the baby boomers begin to retire and the deficit heads back up again in earnest. That's the real budget problem. The plan the president will submit this week does not address it. "We must agree to a bipartisan process to preserve Social Security and reform Medicare for the long run," he said, and that was it. Together we'll do it later. Next slide, please.

On campaign finance reform, the president's proposal was that Congress send him the pending McCain-Feingold bill by July 4, since "you know and I know that delay will mean the death of reform." But how to make it happen he didn't say. Likewise with welfare reform, the final item on the list. It's unfinished business because the bill that Congress passed and the president signed last year will cut people off the welfare, food stamp and other assistance rolls even though it isn't clear what will happen to them next. Some are incapable of working; there may not be enough jobs for the rest. The president spoke of a "moral obligation" to provide the jobs – he proposes a program, more modest than it sounds, to help do so as well – and he will ask that about a third of the benefit cuts in the bill be reversed. "To do otherwise is simply unworthy of a great nation," he says – as if he hadn't himself been the one who signed the bill into law six months ago.

These unpleasant subjects thus disposed of, he went on to the good stuff. He has a 10-point education program, of which the largest elements by far are a couple of tax breaks to help the middle class pay college costs. There are better uses for $40 billion over five years. He also wants to help pay health insurance premiums for uninsured children and the unemployed, a good idea. Most of the rest of what was in the address was hortatory or small-scale – a compilation from last year's campaign.

We don't wish to sound churlish about it, and no president should be called upon to offer the public nothing but toothache. But Mr. Clinton is currently in about as strong a position as he is ever likely to be to achieve important results. If he doesn't get it done now, it's hard to know when he will – and by that standard it was, to us, a disappointing speech.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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