Tuesday, January 19, 1999 A week after the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted last January, national political columnist David S. Broder joined us live online to assess President Clinton's State of the Union address. A year later, as Clinton stands trial in the Senate, Broder joined us again to preview the annual presidential address to a joint session of Congress.
Broder answered your questions about the State of the Union address live for an hour this afternoon. His answers follow.
State College, Pa.: Does the State of the Union speech have any lasting impact on what legislation gets through Congress? Is Bill Clinton particularly good at giving these speeches?
David Broder: President Clinton has done very well in presenting his previous State of the Union addresses. But his record of success in pushing his program through Congress has been mixed. Last year, he had a hard time with major proposals on tobacco, health care and other issues, but did manage to block a large tax cut favored by Republicans and save most of the budget surplus for use in bolstering Social Security.
Blue Springs, Mo.: Why do you think Clinton decided to go ahead and give the State of Union speech tonight and in effect, thumb his nose at the impeachment trial, the process and the Republicans? Does he have to go so far to pretend that he isn't paying attention to any of this?
David Broder: The White House said he wanted the opportunity to tell the public directly and at length what his agenda is for the next year. I do not think this reflects any contempt for the impeachment process, which the president is obviously taking seriously.
Washington, D.C.: In your experience of covering politics and presidents have you ever witnessed a president as much under siege as this one? How is he able thrive much less function as he seems to be doing, without offering the "compartmentalization" theory?
Do you think any other American president could have survived such onslaught? Is this strength what presidents are made of or is Bill Clinton unique in character?
David Broder: The only other president I have seen under such pressure is Richard Nixon. In 1974, eight months before he was forced out of office, he too delivered a State of the Union address which contained major policy initiatives.
Victoria, Tex.: In your final column of 1998 you gave the president full credit for balancing the budget. How did he do it by himself?
David Broder: I don't think I gave the president full credit for balancing the budget. The economy and millions of private individuals made that possible. The Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan made a major contribution with its skillful monetary policy. But the budget that President Clinton submitted in 1993 also played a major role, in my view, as did the budget agreement of 1997, negotiated with the leaders of the Republican Congress.
Nyack, N.Y.: Do you agree with those who say that President Clinton should have postponed his State of the Union address until the Senate trial is over? I will find it difficult to concentrate on his message knowing that he is on trial at this very minute.
David Broder: The Senate trial appears likely to continue for some time--weeks, if not months. I think it was appropriate for the State of the Union to be given on schedule.
Sunman, Ind.: Clinton has promised "a new direction for the nation" (93), health care reform (94), a new social compact (95), an end to big government (96), a national crusade for education (97), and to save Social Security (98) in his previous State of the Union addresses. He has delivered on none of these, and his most spectacular failures came when he had a Democratic Congress. Why does anyone (especially the media) place any credence in what he is about to say? Even Michael Jordan and Mark McGwire are astute enough to be too busy to attend this charade. Enter Sammy Sosa as a substitute.
David Broder: Certainly some of the rhetoric this president--like his predecessors--has used has been overblown. As I said in answer to a previous question, his record of success has been spotty, and I expect that will continue this year.
Alexandria, Va.: What can the president say about policy issues -- education, Social Security or steadying world markets -- that the GOP in Congress will support? Is there any so-called "common ground" between the parties in 1999?
David Broder: We will have to see how much--or how little--common ground there is between the president and Congress. My impression is that prospects are better on Social Security than on education policy, where the differences between the parties are very wide.
Alexandria, Va.: I am choosing not to view/listen to today's State of the Union address because I believe the president is using it purely as a means to say what he believes most people want to hear, thereby increasing his support even more. While other presidents have done this to some degree, I am unable to believe in this case that the president has anything other than selfish gains in mind for tonight's speech. What is your opinion of this?
David Broder: It's up to you whether you listen or not. Clearly the president hopes to bolster his public support with tonight's speech. But I think his agenda is worth considering, and I think parts of it will become the basis for action in Congress.
San Francisco, Calif.: I have heard brief mentions of a censure of President Jackson, could you please explain this to me? Is censure really an option?
David Broder: Censure is an option. But it is not a wise option, in my view. I agree with those who say a congressional censure of the president could set a dangerous precedent. It is not an option mentioned in the Constitution and in my view it does violence to the principle of separation of powers. The Constitutional remedy is impeachment, and I hope that Congress confines itself to a choice of convicting the president or acquitting him.
Washington, D.C.: Although it appears that Clinton is a shameless and pretty selfish guy, what in your opinion will happen to him when the State of the Union speech, the Senate trial and vote are concluded?
David Broder: I do not know what the outcome of the Senate trial of the president will be. The process has a dynamic of its own, and the longer it continues, the more all the participants are forced to consider the questions raised by the president's behavior. This is as it should be, and I will be comfortable with the outcome whatever it is.
Minneapolis, Minn.: As of right now, the Senate probably doesn't have enough votes to convict Clinton. Do you think the Republicans will then back a censure resolution, and if so, would you agree with their decision to accept censure?
David Broder: I do not know what the Republicans will do if the Senate votes against conviction and removal. For the reasons stated earlier, I personally oppose a censure resolution.
Washington, D.C.: Will Clinton get a standing ovation? If not, would that be a first? If so, how long will it be? What would you do if you were there?
David Broder: I have been told by several Republican members of Congress they plan to stand and applaud the president when he enters the chamber, as a sign of respect to the office and of courtesy toward an official who is appearing at the invitation of Congress. Many of them have made it very clear they do not have a high opinion of Clinton personally.
East Lansing, Mich.: In your first response today you referred to the "surplus". Isn't it misleading to refer to a surplus until Social Security is taken off budget? I think most people don't realize that the federal government does not count borrowing from the social security revenue as debt, since they "owe it to themselves".
David Broder: Your point about the surplus is correct, but the good news is that the budget is moving toward surplus, even excluding the surplus in the Social Security trust fund. The consolidated budget--including Social Security--is a sensible means of measuring fiscal policy, but it should not disguise the need to prepare now for the greater demands on Social Security that will come with the retirement of the baby boomers.
Ithaca, N.Y.: I expect that Mr. Clinton will have a large audience for his State of the Union address tonight. I have heard that the impeachment trial in the Senate has not attracted much of an audience in the public gallery (not the reporters' gallery). Do you know if this is true? If so, what do you make of it?
David Broder: The public seats--only 50 in number--have been filled, and people are moved out after a short time to allow others to see this rare event. But the broader public clearly has not been riveted by the trial, at least so far.
Arlington, Va.: Since President Clinton will need the support of congressional Democrats to introduce and pass his plans, and since he seems to have weakened stature before congress, how much do you think he consulted with Hill Democrats to get "their" ideas into "his" speech?
David Broder: I do not know the answer fully. At a White House briefing this morning, we were told he had consulted with Democratic congressional leaders in the last few days on the Social Security plan he will outline tonight.
Last year, when either Starr's office or the White House leaked a court document to the press, the press, including the Washington Post, treated the document as the main item in the news story. What really was news was that individuals in either office were (perhaps) breaking the law by leaking this information. No news story was usually done on this aspect because the reporters' sources and ability to report the next story was at stake. This habit has reduced the press to willing conduits being manipulated by the news sources.
David Broder: The view I hold is that the government has the duty to keep its secrets secret--and that applies to the office of special counsel. Any "leaked" information should be treated with the same skepticism we apply to other information that comes from interested sources, and I believe that has been done with consistency by The Washington Post.
Arlington, Va.: Do have problems reconciling your roles as "unbiased" reporter and opinionated columnist? What is the difference anyway?
David Broder: I try very hard to keep my role as a reporter distinct from what I do as a columnist. On some questions, where I have taken a position, I recuse myself from reporting on the subject.
Columbia, Md.: Would you please tell me why President Reagan was not guilty of perjury when he testified before the grand jury in Iran Contra? Why wasn't President Bush guilty of obstruction of justice when he withheld his diary? The activities in Iran Contra were a direct attack on the Constitution.
David Broder: Perjury, as President Clinton's lawyers point out, is a difficult charge to prove. I am not certain that President Reagan's statements on Iran-contra were perjurious, but I have not made a close study of the question. To the best of my recollection, no one tried to subpoena President Bush's diary.
Winterville, N.C.: I have read your columns and been a fan of yours for many years. Do you think President Clinton will mention, even one time, the plight of poor white males? In my opinion, this is the most neglected "group" in our society.
David Broder: I do not know whether the president will direct any comments specifically to "poor, white males." He has spoken and acted on the problems of low-wage families, through expansion of the earned income tax credit, for example.
Marietta, Ga.: Do you feel uncomfortable at all that your personal dislike of Clinton has clouded your judgment and professionalism?
David Broder: I have no personal dislike of President Clinton. When I saw him informally, in his years as governor, I enjoyed the relationship. I am an admirer of his political skills and his policy smarts. I have tried to separate these judgments from my evaluation of the actions which led to his impeachment.
Arlington, Va.: Are you aware of any initiatives (from the Democrats or Republicans) to use a portion of the surplus and any subsequent surpluses to reduce the national debt? With such a large portion of our tax dollars going simply to pay the interest on this huge sum it would seem to be worth considering.
David Broder: You will hear the president tonight say that his budget proposal will reduce the national debt and thereby save interest payments.
Washington, D.C.: What are the odds that Hillary Clinton will run for the Senate?
David Broder: Mrs. Clinton has not confided her plans to me. If she runs, I think she would be a formidable candidate.
washingtonpost.com: That was our last question for today. Thank you for all of your questions. And thank you, David, for join us on a busy news day.