THE STATE of the Union address long ago ceased to be about the union. It's about the presidency--a defense of the sitting administration's achievements, goals and program. That's all the more true in an election year in which the president seeks as a further badge of accomplishment to have his vice president succeed him.
The program that President Clinton laid out in his final such address last night was familiar. Almost all the major elements had been previously milked for maximum publicity and political effect. The responses were likewise predictable--plenty of applause, but clearly more enthusiasm within his own party than among the majority on the other side.
Mr. Clinton has won the battle of the last two years to have most if not all of the projected Social Security surplus used to pay down debt against that program's future needs. Republicans now outdo the Democrats in their zeal for such a result. The fight is over the size and disposition of the rest of the surplus over the next 10 years. The administration's estimate is that this will amount to a little less than $1 trillion if the size of govenment stays about the same in real terms--the budget grows by no more than inflation.
Mr. Clinton would set aside about $400 billion of this to extend somewhat the life of the Medicare trust fund and pay for a new Medicare drug benefit. The reservation merely puts off the day of reckoning in this troubled program. A drug benefit is needed, but in our view should await and be used to sweeten a more complete restructuring--a combination of cost constraint and new revenues that would do more than paper over Medicare's financial problems for a few more years.
The president would also use in excess of $100 billion for the worthy purpose of reducing the number of lower-income Americans who lack health insurance. He would grant a further $350 billion in tax cuts whose cost would be offset by $100 billion in loophole closing. Given the costs it faces, that's more than the government should commit to at this stage, but to the administration's credit the proposed cuts are mostly well designed to contribute to public purposes. Some $70 billion would be used to help fund retirement accounts for lower- and middle-income people. Another $20 billion would be set aside to expand the earned-income tax credit that supplements the wages of the working poor, and $30 billion would be spent on expanding the current child-care credit and extending it to people with incomes too low to owe taxes. Lesser uses would include middle-class-only relief from the so-called marriage penalty, and an increase in college student aid to the middle class.
Republicans will accuse the president of proposing large spending increases. In fact, he has artfully couched many of these as tax cuts. He urged as well that Congress complete the unfinished business of regulating managed care, reforming campaign finance and raising the minimum wage, and commendably added to his stalled gun control proposals the licensing of handgun sales. It's the right idea even if doomed in this Congress.
His is not a bad program, but Mr. Clinton talked a fair amount last night about the importance of using the present prosperity to deal with the long-term problems facing the country. Then he once again systematically ducked the largest such problem within the government's purview--how to finance the baby boomers' retirement. That problem he bequeaths to whoever wins the election that he now seeks to influence in part by deferring the solution.