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Some Hear Echo of Past Success in Clinton Speech

By Dan Balz and Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 26, 1995; Page A01

OAK PARK, ILL., JAN. 25 – A few minutes after President Clinton finished his State of the Union Message Tuesday night, Jerry Carpenter, an electrical engineer from the Chicago suburbs, offered a crisp assessment of both the speech and the challenge Clinton faces in the coming two years.

"I'm sure everyone in this room gave him a relatively nice grade because it's a speech, but the real grade comes with performance and action," Carpenter said. Then, as if talking directly to the man he voted for two years ago but who has disappointed him in office, Carpenter added, "Walk it like you talked it. Talk is cheap."

Clinton sought to use his State of the Union address to reassert himself politically after the battering he and the Democrats took in last fall's midterm elections. For a dozen Chicago-area voters, the speech served as a reintroduction to a politician who has been largely invisible for the past few months – and there was much about it they liked.

"It reminded me of the president that I voted for," said Michael Smith, a computer technician.

"He came on as a leader," said Patricia Matzke, a single mother of three who works as a medical assistant. "He came on strong. He looked real good. Now let's see what's going to happen."

The Washington Post brought together a dozen people from the Chicago suburbs to assess Clinton at midterm. The group included Democrats, Republicans and independents. All but a few voted for Clinton in 1992, but they have not decided whether to support him again in 1996. They discussed Clinton's overall performance as president on Monday; on Tuesday, they offered their views of his State of the Union Message.

Although the new Republican Congress has soaked up most of the media attention since November, the members of the group knew little about the GOP agenda – the words "Contract With America" drew mostly blank stares – and they are wary of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Like many Americans, they want to see action from Washington, not gridlock and excessive partisanship.

For these voters, the State of the Union speech was an antidote to weeks of unrelenting criticism of Clinton's presidency.

"Tonight reminded us of what has been accomplished," said Maureen Prince, who works as the office manager in her husband's business and has raised five children. "We are so busy hearing the negatives all the time, from the time you wake up on your clock radio in the morning."

"I forgot a lot about it until I saw this tonight, what he has done," said Patricia Weger-Taylor, who works in a restaurant. "It was a big plus. I forgot a lot about a lot of these things."

"I liked the tone he set," Matzke said. "I like the direction he's looking in."

Several in the group were pleased that Clinton had emerged from the November elections chastened and humble. "Even he admitted he was humiliated," said Maria Verdin, who works in the Cook County adult probation office. "I mean, the president saying he was humiliated!"

"I'll tell you the one thing that impressed me was when he admitted he had made mistakes," Carpenter said. "A lot of times, people don't do that."

The group's immediate impressions mirrored the results of several polls conducted immediately after the president's speech.

ABC News found that eight out of 10 approved of the president's speech. CBS News said that 74 percent of those surveyed said they had a "clear idea" of what Clinton stands for, compared with just 41 percent before the speech. A Gallup Poll for USA Today and Cable News Network found that eight in 10 said Clinton is leading the country in the right direction.

But around the table in Oak Park here, first impressions of the speech quickly gave way to a more somber assessment of Clinton and the agenda he outlined Tuesday night.

"The first part of his speech I felt he came on more as a leader," said Don Strickler, a painting and drywall contractor. "He was pretty strong, he was pretty aggressive. And then he mellowed out. The shape of his face changed and he became more emotional and {was} delving into . . . our emotions as an audience."

Asked which Clinton he preferred, Strickler said, "I prefer them both. But I think the country needs the first."

Prince said that while she agreed with Smith's upbeat reaction to the speech, she worried that it was just rhetoric, not real. "I'm agreeing, I'm agreeing," she said as Smith praised the president. "I just am hoping that he just doesn't have better speech writers."

"He's a good speaker," said Maureen Walker, a graduate student and part-time waitress. "That's what he's there to do. He talks a good game, but actions speak louder than words in my book. . . . A speech is a speech, if you ask me. You have to look at what he's done."

Walker said she was bothered by the absence of detail in Clinton's discussion of reforming the health care system. "I wanted more specifics," she said. "To me it was like that movie, What About Bob?' -- baby steps, baby steps, little things. For me that {the heath care discussion} was a Band-Aid."

In fact, there was relatively little in the long list of issues and programs that Clinton talked about that grabbed the members of the group.

One mentioned Clinton's national service corps, another fleetingly talked about job training vouchers, a third spoke about the proposed tax cuts for the middle class. Several mentioned health care, but like Walker, as much for what was left unstated as what was stated.

As the discussion continued Tuesday, a greater tone of skepticism crept into the comments, relecting the overall assessments of Clinton's presidency members of the group offered on Monday night.

Despite the fact that many voted for Clinton in 1992, the group gave him mediocre to poor grades for his performance in office. After two years, they see Clinton as a well-meaning person who lacks the strength and leadership required of the presidency.

"He's a disappointment," said Pierre Glardon, who works in the hotel business. "I voted for him, although I consider myself to be a Republican. But I'm not happy with him. He doesn't make any decisions."

"I see Clinton as a man who's a public speaker and his best asset is to charm the public," Strickler said. "And I think his greatest deficiency is as a politician. He doesn't know how to bring people together and work though problems. I think he organizes knowledge and intellect and I think he's a debater, but I think he lacks the guts for hard-core decision making. I think he can play with the words, but I don't think he can make decisions and stand the heat."

"I don't think he's decisive enough," said Mary Eder, a retired teacher. "If you're a teacher, you don't let the kids tell you what to do or you're in big trouble. I think he's got to stand up and be his own man."

Maria Verdin and Maureen Walker said Clinton had not lived up to the promise of his campaign.

"I hoped he would . . . make this country a little better than it is," Verdin said. "I think right now he's at a standstill. I don't think he knows which way to go."

Walker described Clinton on Monday as "a puppet" always looking to others for direction. "Everyone said, You look the part,' and he said, Yeah, that's cool.' And then he got there and went, Somebody tell me what to do.' "

"He's spinning his wheels," said Ron Collins, who works for an electronics company.

"I gave him a C-minus," Carpenter said. Asked why, he replied, "I didn't want to give him a D."

Clinton's performance on Tuesday night helped to alleviate some of the group's concerns.

"I swear it sounded like he was sitting in the room with us last night," Smith said. "He did exactly what I felt he should have done, because he took the accomplishments he had made and put them out there. Here's the record. It's on the table. Look at it."

And some in the group expressed hope that together Clinton and the Republican Congress might be able to accomplish more than Clinton and the Democrats had done the past two years.

"Hopefully we're going to wake him up," Glardon said. "Maybe Gingrich will have to do the trick . . . a needle in the butt."

"Change is good," Prince said. "I think when one party is in control for too long, they get stale. . . . They don't feel they have to listen to the people. I think the people told them {the Democrats} they were not happy."

Two nights of discussions showed that Clinton may yet win back the members of the Oak Park group who supported him in 1992, but it will take much more than a well-received speech.

"In 1992 people voted for change," Carpenter said. "I think he realizes that he's got to ante up or else we're going to vote for change in '96."

Strickler said Clinton appears to have learned from his mistakes. "Clinton is sort of like the matador in the ring," he said. "I think when he went in before he was pretty naive. He's gotten a little bit of experience now. I thought some of that came across in the speech."

But Strickler said both Clinton and the Republicans will be judged not on how they deal with the laundry list of issues the president laid out Tuesday night, but on the truly big issues facing the country, from the deficit to welfare reform to health care.

Most other issues, he said, are insignificant compared to those. When they begin to show progress on the big issues, "Then they're going to make some real strides," he added. "Until then, they're just playing politics."

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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