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The Challenge of Turning Slogans Into a Practical Agenda

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 5 1997; Page A01

In his State of the Union address a year ago, President Clinton had one overriding objective: to salvage his presidency and win reelec tion. Last night he faced a different kind of challenge: to recast the political sloganeering of that successful campaign into a compelling and concrete agenda to move the country forward.

In his speech last year, Clinton declared that the era of big government is over, an acknowledgment of the political winds that had buffeted his presidency. Last night he made clear that the era of smaller government need not be the era of inaction or indifference. "We must be the shapers of events, not observers," he said.

His rhetoric last night was often loftier and more eloquent than his inaugural address of two weeks ago that sought to stamp the 21st century in his image. And his emphasis on educational excellence and racial reconciliation – and even a personal reference to the importance of tackling entitlement reform – struck themes of enormous significance to the future of the country.

But faced with the choice of continuing to offer an agenda of small, if politically popular, gestures or presenting the country with something big and bold, Clinton chose the safer, smaller approach. He talked little about the hard choices required to balance the budget, other than the areas where he wants to spend more money. He said nothing of the potential effects on his own and other generations of trying to restructure Medicare and Social Security to assure their long-term solvency.

Nor did the president offer much of an olive branch to the Republican majority in Congress. Despite much talk of bipartisanship and cooperation these past few months, Clinton's speech did as much to signal his differences with Republicans on the budget as it did to reassure them that he is ready to compromise significantly. That posture not only demonstrated the president's restored sense of self-confidence but assures hard bargaining in the months ahead.

Clinton came to the House chamber last night more free to define himself and his full agenda than at any time in his presidency. Four years ago, he was encumbered by the need to concentrate his energies on a weak economy, and already had ceded some of his power to the congressional Democrats who controlled Congress. Two years ago, he arrived battered, beaten and fighting for survival in the face of Republican victories in 1994.

But after his victory last November, Clinton stood last night as the dominant politician in the capital, with approval ratings at the peak of his presidency. "More than any other State of the Union, the president approached this one on his own terms," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "And with much more of an opportunity to define the political environment than to be defined by the political environment."

Last night, Clinton showed again how much he has been shaped by five terms as governor of Arkansas. His domestic priorities – by far the lengthiest portion of his speech – echo what many of the nation's governors have been advocating the past month in their own state of the state addresses, from education standards to charter schools to slow expansions of health care coverage to combating juvenile crime.

Clinton showed that in an era of scarce federal resources, his appetite for action far exceeds his bankroll. "It's an indication of what politics is likely to be like in the era of balanced budgets. There's no room for big, bold initiatives," said Vin Weber, a former Republican House member from Minnesota. "They [governors] all operate with a balanced budget and they do things in a programmatic way – but not in a very big way."

The president said last night he wants to play both teacher and preacher in his second term. Racial reconciliation and educational excellence have been his passions since he first took the governor's office in Little Rock in 1979, and he gave them special prominence in his remarks to the joint session of Congress.

He promised to make education his top priority over the next four years and called for "a national crusade" to raise standards and prepare schoolchildren for competition in the 21st century. "Education is one of the critical national security issues for our future," Clinton said in asking for a "nonpartisan commitment" to excellence, adding, "Politics must stop at the classroom door."

But his elevation of education to the center of his second-term agenda underscored not only his personal passions but the political high ground he enjoys on that issue – and it represented a clear challenge to the Republicans. Where Republicans once called for abolishing the Department of Education, they now find themselves on the defensive on the issue, thanks to the support Clinton won last November from suburban voters and middle-class women.

On race, Clinton reiterated the themes of his inaugural address, calling diversity one of the greatest strengths of the country if everyone is given the opportunity to achieve that greatness. But he said, "We are not there yet. We still see evidence of abiding bigotry and intolerance, in ugly words and awful violence, in burned churches and bombed buildings. We must fight against this, in our country and in our hearts."

But on this issue, Clinton proved again he prefers reconciliation to controversy – failing even to allude to the debate over affirmative action that continues to divide the country.

What was most striking about last night's speech was how little time Clinton devoted to two contentious issues that will tie up the White House and Congress this year. The first is balancing the budget, and in a few quick paragraphs he disposed of the issue that divided Washington the past two years. "Let this Congress be the Congress that finally balances the budget," he said to applause.

But Clinton's balanced budget priorities – protecting Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment – echoed the rhetoric of his presidential campaign and he made clear he will oppose Republican efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. "We don't need a constitutional amendment, we need action," he said. So much for starting the debate on conciliatory terms.

On campaign finance reform he called for enactment of bipartisan legislation by July 4. But he offered no mea culpa to the American people for the violations his own party committed during the last campaign, nor did he make a compelling case to the politicians in the House chamber, whose lives will be most affected by any changes, of the consequences to the country if they fail to act.

Clinton spoke last night at the beginning of what could be a rare moment in American politics, a period of relative peace between two parties chastened by the spankings both have received from the voters in the past two elections. Self-interest now propels both Clinton and Republican leaders in Congress to reach accommodation on issues that long have divided them.

Last night the president sought to begin the process on his own terms. But in the months ahead he will have choices to make that could divide his own party or threaten the goodwill that now exists between the two parties. That will prove to be the real test of his leadership – and perhaps his place in history.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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