President Clinton will use his eighth and final State of the Union address tonight to push for his presidency's unfinished priorities, an agenda that focuses largely on health care and education subsidies for middle-class families, topics that promise to play a key role in this fall's campaigns.
Clinton's speech comes at a time when he has the luxury of projected budget surpluses and--for the first time in three years--is not addressing Congress and the nation against the backdrop of his own personal scandal. The president plans to propose an array of tax credits, school grants and other devices meant to make it easier for low- to middle-income Americans to attend college, care for elderly parents and improve neighborhood schools.
The president, who has touted as many as 80 proposals in past addresses, will call for $110 billion over 10 years to expand health care coverage, tuition tax credits of up to $2,800 per student, $3,000 tax credits for people needing long-term care, and dozens of other initiatives. He will renew his push for a "patient's bill of rights," a higher minimum wage, prescription drug benefits for Medicare recipients and tighter gun laws.
White House efforts to build momentum for the speech continued late yesterday, when officials said Clinton will call for $1 billion in new spending for after-school programs and another $1 billion to boost the Head Start program for preschoolers. He will propose new spending to reduce class sizes and to attract good teachers to schools in low-income areas.
"The president will call on Congress to make an unprecedented effort this year to invest more in our schools and demand more from them," said domestic policy adviser Bruce N. Reed.
Aides said Clinton will praise Vice President Gore, who will sit behind him and who is battling former senator Bill Bradley (N.J.) for the Democratic presidential nomination. Several of Clinton's proposals will mirror Gore's campaign initiatives, such as an effort to subsidize health insurance for low-income workers that is less ambitious and costly than Bradley's proposal.
Clinton also is expected to criticize Republican proposals for deeper tax cuts, which are central to GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush's campaign. The president may not mention Bush by name, but White House press secretary Joe Lockhart did not hesitate yesterday, saying: "The tax cut that Republicans on the Hill are talking about championing this year mirrors the plan put forward by Governor Bush. That is a tax cut that explodes after five years, can't be sustained. . . . "
Using a nationally televised format that has served him well, Clinton is expected to boast of his administration's accomplishments, especially in the economic arena, but also insist there's much more to do in many areas. Aides predicted little news regarding foreign affairs, but said Clinton will restate his hopes for a Middle East peace accord.
Aides predict the 9 p.m. speech, given to a joint session of Congress in the House chamber and carried live by the major networks, could easily surpass last year's 77-minute address. Lockhart jokingly told reporters yesterday, "If we're less than two hours, it will be a great speech."
One element that overshadowed the previous two State of the Union addresses--fresh partisan controversy--will be absent. Clinton delivered his 1998 speech on the day his wife famously declared that a "vast right-wing conspiracy" was behind the newly disclosed Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, and last year's speech occurred in front of House members who had impeached him and senators who soon would try him.
Clinton got strong reviews for both speeches, which helped steady his then-rocky presidency. Analysts predict he will stick with his proven formula: A lengthy address chock full of proposals ranging from modest to ambitious and touching on nearly every aspect of American life.
"The structure of the speech will be, I think, very much like the others," said Norman Ornstein, a presidential expert at the American Enterprise Institute. Ornstein questioned the notion that the GOP-controlled Congress will summarily reject most of Clinton's proposals, saying "it would be suicidal" for legislators to rebuff popular initiatives when control of the House hangs on the November elections.
Ornstein said Clinton's speech will set up "a real conjunction of the need of the Congress to have a record, and the need of a president to establish a legacy that he knows isn't going to come from grand gestures in domestic policy but [will require] building it brick by brick."
Clinton, in an interview this week with Stateline.org, said of his approach to tonight's address: "I don't feel bittersweet; I do feel some nostalgia. . . . "
Other key speech proposals that Clinton has previewed in recent days would:
* Provide health coverage to the parents of children covered by the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Costing $110 billion over 10 years, it would constitute the biggest federal increase in health coverage in 35 years.
* Enact a $31 billion package of tax breaks and financial aid to families--whose annual income could be as much as $120,000--to help pay college costs. It would include a tax credit of $2,800 by 2003.
* Spend $1.3 billion for grants and loans to help renovate thousands of schools.
* Encourage child support payments by booting the cars, intercepting gambling winnings and denying passport applications of parents with overdue court-ordered payments.