WASHINGTON — President Clinton, striving to rekindle support for the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, Tuesday night called on Congress to pass his massive health reform plan as he delivered a State of the Union speech strong on passion but deliberately devoid of major new legislative initiatives.
Faced with a lengthy, and still partly unfulfilled, catalogue of promises from his first year in office, Clinton used his 65-minute, nationally televised address to review his successes and to appeal for swift action on the three largest items that remain--health reform, welfare and crime control.
On health care, which occupied by far the longest section of his speech, Clinton again offered to cooperate with Republicans in drafting a bipartisan program, but he bluntly threatened to veto any bill that does not meet his fundamental requirement.
"I want to make this very clear," he said with studied determination. "If you send me legislation that does not guarantee every American private health insurance that can never be taken away, you will force me to take this pen, veto the legislation, and we'll come right back here and start all over again."
The veto threat, a rare moment of drama in a State of the Union Address that for the most part tracked over familiar ground, was part of an effort to stir the sense of urgency that White House strategists believe must be maintained if his plan for a comprehensive overhaul is to win approval.
In the Republican response after the speech, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the minority leader, gave little sign of compromise--sharply attacking Clinton's health plan. The President's proposal, he said, contained a "massive overdose of federal control" that would "put a mountain of bureaucracy between you and your doctor."
Clinton also made a lengthy pitch for his welfare reform proposals, promising to submit legislation this spring. Working on the two simultaneously is "inevitable and imperative," Clinton said, arguing that many people remain on welfare precisely to obtain health benefits.
While he pushed for passage of his agenda, Clinton carefully avoided proposing new programs, as other presidents often have on such occasions. Senior White House advisers believe that voters think the President already has promised more than he can accomplish. In fact, White House officials fear over-promising, seeing it as Clinton's major vulnerability--one that his Republican opponents already have begun to talk about.
In addition, as Clinton stressed, the constraints of last year's budget plan have left Congress and the White House virtually no flexibility to propose new spending without cutting existing programs.
So rather than make a raft of new promises, Clinton devoted most of his speech to convincing Americans that he is hard at work on the promises he already has made, and that he can deliver.
"In 1992 the American people demanded that we change," Clinton said. "A year ago I asked all of you to join me in accepting responsibility for the future of our country. Well, we did. We replaced drift and deadlock with renewal and reform.
"And I want to thank every one of you here who heard the American people, who broke gridlock, who gave them the most successful teamwork between a President and a Congress in 30 years," Clinton said, referring to a record of legislative action not exceeded since the early years of the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration.
On a second issue of increasing public concern, Clinton said the epidemic of violence across the land must be addressed. But he added--in an acknowledgment that Democrats in the past often have been reluctant to make--that the role of the federal government is limited and that many of the country's ills can only be handled by family, school, church and community.
"Our problems go way beyond the reach of government. They're rooted in the loss of values and the disappearance of work and the breakdown of our families and our communities," Clinton said. "The American people have got to want to change from within if we're going to bring back work and family and community."
In particular, Clinton pointed to one of the most controversial issues of social policy--the nation's rapidly growing rate of out-of-wedlock births. "We cannot renew our country when, within a decade, more than half of the children will be born into families where there has been no marriage," he said.
At the same time, he endorsed a set of specific steps to reduce crime, beginning with a "three strikes" law that would require life sentences for people convicted of three felonies. He also repeated his call for federal assistance to allow cities and towns to hire 100,000 more police officers.