Clinton Asks 'Naysayers' For a Hand
By Dan Balz
If President Clinton proved anything during his first year in office it was that he loves nothing so much as the bully pulpit and a friendly audience. Make no mistake, the man can talk.
In last night's State of the Union Address there were no sweeping new programs, no dramatic surprises. But it was vintage Clinton, a style by now familiar for the breadth of the subject-matter, the jazz-like riffs of rhetoric, the lectern-jabbing gestures and the easy segues from policy detail to moral passion.
If health care was the cornerstone of his speech, the message was much broader. As he put it, the state of the union "is growing stronger, but it must be stronger still." It was the way an activist president tells Congress and the American people he has much more he wants to do.
Summoning the public to come together as a nation, he said, "The naysayers fear we will not be equal to the challenges of our time, but they misread our history, our heritage and even today's headlines. They all tell us we can and we will overcome any challenge."
Bill Clinton has been here before. Last year's speech to a joint session of Congress successfully launched his budget and economic package, only to see it come dangerously close to crashing a few months later. Last September and again in October he successfully launched his health care proposal. Last night he was fighting to get it moving again.
In demonstrating once more his rhetorical gifts are among his greatest assets as president, Clinton seized the moment he was given by the Constitution. Whether the call to arms puts steel in the spines of his supporters in Congress and welds public opinion into an enduring force for his kind of change is a question that will be answered later this year. Part of the answer may lie in how successfully Clinton moves from last night's generalities to the specifics required before Congress enacts legislation.
For all the buildup that accompanied last night's address, there was one crucial question Clinton had to answer, and he did so in clear and simple terms. He will not retreat on his insistence that health care reform means comprehensive, guaranteed benefits for every American.
Three months ago Clinton said much the same thing when he and Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered their 1,342-page health care bill to Congress. But that was before Republican qualms had hardened into genuine opposition, before public opinion began to wilt in the heat of a flurry of detailed critiques and before Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) declared there is no health care crisis in America.
Faced with a fragile political environment, Clinton responded as forcefully as he could last night, suggesting those who believe there is no crisis tell that to people who have lost their insurance "because I can't." He made clear to doubters in Congress or the country that whatever their fears about jumping into the health care unknown, he is not ready to yield to calls for incrementalism.
He threatened to use his veto pen for the first time in his presidency and pitted congressional "naysayers" against a public he said is far ahead of the politicians on the issue. He said the people deserved health care benefits and security at least as good as those sitting in the House chamber receive from the government. Republicans sat stony-faced.
Last year Clinton spoke for 59 minutes; last night it was 63. If his campaign promised change, his rhetoric is a model of continuity. Most of the themes from last year were back, rewoved to fit the political time and place of an election year in which the polls show crime and violence now more important than the economy.
Clinton's best-received speech of his presidency a passionate exhortation against the plague of violence in America that he delivered from a pulpit in Memphis last fall became his peroration last night. He called for crime legislation that is both "smart and tough" and showed he reads the polls as well as the next politician by calling for "three strikes and you are out" measures to put violent criminals behind bars for life if they are repeat offenders. He called for more police on the streets and more curbs on guns but he did not take sides in the seemingly eternal fight between the House and Senate that has prevented a crime bill from passing for years.
But Clinton said much needs to be done that is beyond the reach of government to provide the children of America a safe and secure future. From community involvement to neighborhood action, he urged Americans to take responsiblity to make the meanest streets more livable.
Summoning the spirit of an America that has recently battled earthquakes, floods, fires and bitter weather, Clinton said, "Let us not reserve the better angels only for natural disasters, leaving our deepest and most profound problems to petty political fighting."
The domestic agenda he outlined last night was as ambitious as ever. In addition to health care and crime, it included welfare reform, an overhaul of the government's job training programs to replace unemployment with reemployment, campaign finance reform, lobbying reform, education legislation, even the creation of the information superhighway.
Congress choked on some of that agenda last year and it may again. In words almost identical to those of last year, he said health care had to be passed this year. And once again he promised without yet having delivered to put forward a comprehensive program to "end welfare as we know it."
The Republicans have accused Clinton of talking right and governing left, of appealing to the public on an agenda of "new Democrat" ideas only to abandon them or give the liberals in his party their heads. Welfare reform offers Clinton the opportunity to disprove his critics, but despite his words of last night, it remains rhetorical promise, not presidential commitment or reality.
If history is any guide, last night's speech will reinvigorate his presidency after a month in which personal allegations, financial questions and the search for a new defense secretary partly overshadowed his first European visit.
But the agenda he called on Congress to enact last night is not only ambitious but also politically complex. In the swirl of an election year in which Republicans hope to gain at his expense, the hard work is still to come, and he may be forced back into the pulpit once again.
© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company