Clinton Embraces GOP Themes in Setting Agenda
By Ann Devroy
Borrowing liberally from Republican themes, President Clinton last night declared that the "era of big government is over" and sought to ease middle-class anxieties with an upbeat vision of a nation pulling together to ready itself for the new century.
With Republicans bruised by weeks of vicious partisan budget battles sitting mostly silent and grim in their seats, Clinton used his election-year State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress to point out how many goals he and Republicans share, without dwelling on how strenuously he and Congress have fought over the means to achieve them. He is for a balanced budget, but not their balanced budget. He is for welfare reform, but not their welfare reform. He is for family. Individual responsibility. Self-reliance. The fight against crime. The battle against drugs. But they disagree on government's role.
Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.), the leading Republican presidential candidate, made the differences between the presidential rhetoric and presidential action the theme of his televised response. In a tough, mince-no-words address, Dole said that though Clinton's "words speak of change, his deeds are a contradiction."
Clinton, Dole said, is the "chief obstacle" to a balanced budget, the "rear guard of the welfare state" and "the last defender of a discredited status quo." Predicting a winter of challenge, Dole said congressional Republicans will keep sending Clinton the elements of their agenda and "challenge President Clinton again and again to walk the talk he talks so well."
The Clinton speech came at an extraordinary moment for him, as he paused between innings in the bitter struggle with reigning Republicans over balancing the budget and his tough reelection campaign. Hillary Rodham Clinton sat in the traditional first lady's balcony seat and brought daughter Chelsea along for her first appearance at a State of the Union address, all but guaranteeing a polite reception. But the first lady remained a visible reminder of the president's continuing, intractable problem with the Whitewater investigations and their many offshoots. It was Hillary Clinton's first public appearance since the announcement Monday that she has been subpoenaed to appear before a criminal grand jury.
Clinton, with an emotional pause and a clenched-jaw look, called the first lady a "wonderful wife, a magnificent mother and a great first lady," producing a standing ovation from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Clinton, who used the rhetorical stiletto more than the ax, scored Republicans for shutting down the government, trying to uproot environmental protections and pushing other measures that pollsters have found unpopular. But in most of his speech, Clinton reenlisted in the smaller government movement in words that could come out of the mouths of most, if not all, Republicans. "Big government does not have all the answers," Clinton said. "There's not a program for every problem. . . . We know we need a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington . . . one that lives within its means."
He even managed to praise Republicans for their efforts to balance the budget and to salute Dole for his heroic service in World War II, a recognition that did nothing to make the senator soften his tough message.
Republicans were less than receptive as the president broadly laid out what he called seven challenges for an "Age of Possibility," sketching a future in which individuals, community and other segments of society take more responsibility for making America work.
Among the challenges Clinton outlined for the nation were to strengthen the American family, provide educational opportunities for all Americans, help Americans achieve economic security, protect the nation against criminals and drugs, and preserve the environment.
Clinton managed another rare feat last night sticking within the normal time bounds of a major presidential speech. His address was about an hour, compared with last year's indoor record for presidential State of the Union addresses 82 minutes.
Virtually all polls show Republican efforts to change federal environmental policy to be highly unpopular, and Clinton took full advantage of that last night. In the most reasoned of tones, Clinton said environmental protection used to be bipartisan but described Republican policy as shredding enforcement and allowing polluters to write environmental laws. Coached to keep their tempers, Republicans glowered.
Despite the rancor of the ongoing budget battle, the partisanship in the chamber was no greater than usual at such events.
Democrats cheered lustily at virtually every applause line and Republicans mostly sat on their hands. Republican applause, when it came, was polite, though they did join in on such uncontroversial matters as opposing domestic violence and violence on television.
There was derisive laughter from Republicans when Clinton said they were near agreement on welfare reform and should pass a bipartisan version. A voice called out: "Been there, done that." Clinton vetoed one version last year. In a brief segment on foreign policy, the president also said the nation's challenge is to maintain its leadership in the international fight for freedom and peace. And finally, he listed what he called the nation's challenge to politicians to produce a smaller, less bureaucratic government that earns, again, the respect and trust its citizens.
He challenged Congress to pass campaign finance reform as a step in that direction.
Ending his address with the same "big government is over" assertion as he began it, Clinton said that despite that, "We can't go back to the era of fending for yourself. We have to go forward to the era of working together as a community, as a team, as one America."
With government funding disappearing and Republicans in charge of Congress, Clinton had little to offer in the way of new government programs, a traditional State of the Union device for Democrats and even some Republicans before the current balance-the-budget era.
Instead, the president suggested a handful of modest proposals aimed primarily at easing middle-class anxieties, including a $1,000 scholarship for the top 5 percent of all high school graduates.
Aides said it would cost taxpayers $125 million.
He called for tax incentives for businesses that clean up abandoned properties and expansion of a federally funded college work-study program to 1 million students, up from 700,000 now. He called for an FBI-led war against youth gangs and for legislation protecting workers' pensions and insuring health care benefits for employees who change jobs or have preexisting conditions.
By federal program standards, the money involved was a thimble of water in a receding ocean of federal spending.
Next week, Clinton is to formally lay down a 1997 budget that cuts $297 billion in domestic discretionary spending over seven years, $159 billion more than the president was proposing only a month ago.
Clinton did not avoid his fights with Republicans over the budget, but he did not emphasize them last night and worked, instead, to wrap around Republican necks the unpopular government shutdowns that ended 1995.
The president reiterated a position he has repeated almost daily since the budget talks broke down almost two weeks ago that the Republicans should accept an increase in the federal debt ceiling and agree to a balanced budget deal that locks in $600 billion in savings while deferring settlement of major differences.
What Clinton did emphasize on the budget was the human side to the government shutdown, in the form of Richard Dean, a Social Security Administration employee flown to Washington to sit in the audience and have his story told to the millions watching on television and in the chamber.
With the White House almost giddy the past month in its public relations advantages over the budget, Clinton used Dean to tell the nation and the Republicans that government shutdowns are a mistake. Dean, who works in Oklahoma City, helped rescue fellow workers in the bombing there and then was "forced out of his office again" by the government shutdowns.
"On behalf of Richard and his family, I challenge all of you in this chamber: Never, ever, shut the federal government down again," Clinton said.
A dozen or more polls have shown that Americans blame Republicans by a wide margin for shutting down the government during the budget disputes; their faith in GOP handling of economic and budget issues has dropped dramatically.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has said the shutdown tactic, aimed at forcing Clinton into a budget compromise, was a mistake, and last night had to sit behind the president and grimly listen to Clinton revel in the public popularity of his position.
Clinton was equally sharp on the issue of Republicans using the debt ceiling to try to force presidential budget or other policy concessions.
The Clinton administration has announced that by March 1, the government will no longer use accounting techniques and other devices to keep borrowing to pay its bills and must get a increase in the debt by then.
Clinton last night not only demanded an increase in the debt limit, but said he asked on behalf of Social Security recipients in particular. Republicans could not help but hear the upcoming line of Clinton attack.
Staff writer John E. Yang contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company