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Too Much Good News Upsets Clinton Agenda : Programs: With a brighter economic and health care outlook, support for his 'security' initiatives could fade.

January 23, 1994|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — This was supposed to be the year President Clinton got to do the fun stuff, to enact the activist agenda that helped him get elected.

After an initial 12 months in which he felt compelled to swallow the sour medicine of deficit-reduction, Clinton planned to focus this year's domestic agenda on ambitious and upbeat initiatives in the areas of health care, welfare reform, crime prevention, education and job training.

Those policies provide the building blocks of what Clinton once called his "economic security agenda"--his Administration's response to what it perceived as voters' deep anxiety about the future.

Yet as Clinton prepares to outline his plans for 1994 in his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, he faces a dilemma rich with irony. Signs of growth and renewal are showing up in many quarters--earthquakes and cold spells notwithstanding.

Positive numbers are rolling in on employment, economic expansion, health care costs and America's international competitiveness. In early January, consumer confidence rose to its highest level since before the Persian Gulf War.

But what is unquestionably good for the nation and its citizens could be bad news for Clinton and his "security" agenda.

With increasing evidence of economic revival, the sense of crisis that Clinton had counted on to generate support for his activist initiatives may quickly evaporate.

With the possible exception of a new infusion of federal funds for earthquake-ravaged Southern California, the public's appetite for big government programs is likely to wane as its confidence rises on such key issues as job and income security, affordability of health care and the outlook for the economy.

In an acknowledgment of the improving national mood, Administration officials now say Clinton is backing off economic security as the unifying theme of agenda. They say he will downplay the security refrain in his State of the Union Address, a speech that will be dominated by the issues of health care and crime prevention.

"We found that 'security' went over like a lead balloon as a theme," said one White House official. "I think you will see it only as a secondary component of the speech."

There is far more than rhetoric and symbolism at stake for Clinton. Indeed, the President may be about to find out just how difficult it is to get Washington to take forceful action when there isn't a sense of urgency in the air.

Just as the White House gears up for its big legislative push on health care reform, for example, the government's statistical gnomes churn out data showing that the spiraling growth of health care costs is slowing.

The Labor Department reported earlier this month that medical costs rose 5.4% in 1993. Pharmaceutical prices rose 3.1%, less than half the rate posted in 1992 and the smallest increase in nearly 20 years.

The surge in medical costs over the past decade has been a key concern driving the debate over health care reform. A sustained reduction in the growth rate could raise new questions about the wisdom of the sweeping reforms proposed by Clinton.

The President's plan relies heavily on government intervention in the medical marketplace, and critics already have accused Clinton of drafting a plan that is too radical to gain widespread support.

Indeed, the apparent taming of medical inflation has prompted one powerful lawmaker, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), to declare that there is "no health care crisis" facing the nation.

"I think it is inevitable that slower growth in health care costs will have a major political impact on health care reform," said Dr. Edith Rassell, a health care economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and a supporter of health care reform. "There are lot of people who want to do nothing, and this gives them a perfect excuse."

Moynihan and a handful of his moderate Democrat allies in Congress would much rather focus on the politically popular issue of welfare reform in advance of 1994's off-year elections.

As a result, the Administration, which hopes to keep the issue on the back burner until Congress finishes with health care, may be forced to accelerate the timetable for welfare reform. The competing pressures over the timing of health care and welfare reform is shaping up as one of the first major legislative battles of 1994.

Similarly, the crisis atmosphere that once surrounded the issue of America's ability to compete with its major trading partners seems to be waning as the economy rouses from its stupor.

International competitiveness is a theme that runs through virtually all of Clinton's major initiatives, from health care reform to Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich's ambitious plan to fund new training and re-employment programs for displaced workers.

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