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The Challenge of Clinton's State of the Union Address

January 25, 1998|David Kusnet | David Kusnet, a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, was chief speech writer for President Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign and the first two years of the administration. He is the author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the '90s."

WASHINGTON — When President Bill Clinton strides toward the podium Tuesday night to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress and the country, don't be surprised if he gives a great speech.

He always does. Especially when he's under pressure.

In February 1993, after a shaky start as president, he spent an entire day rewriting his address to a joint session of Congress presenting his economic plan--and, then, he improvised, anyway.

Seven months later, his TelePrompTer displayed the wrong speech when he presented his health-reform plan to another joint session. So he winged it again.

And, in January 1994, he delivered his first State of the Union address not long after media coverage of alleged scandals akin to those bedeviling him now.

All three speeches were well-received by the public and the press. Tuesday night's may succeed, too.

Even before the latest firestorm, Clinton was planning to use this address to change the course of his presidency--from the cheerful minimalism of the past three years to something closer to the activism of his first two years.

So he'll face this challenge Tuesday night: to elevate his presidency again by talking about big ideas.

During his 1992 campaign and his first two years as president, Clinton promoted public investments in education and training, health care and technology in order for Americans to compete more successfully in the global economy.

His argument was clear and compelling. Most people were "working longer and harder for less." And economic inequality was fraying our social fabric as well--"We are coming apart when we should be coming together."

Yes, he presented himself as "a different kind of Democrat," but the difference between Clinton and the failed national Democrats of the 1970s and '80s could be measured more by the largeness than the limits of his ambitions. He would invest in all working Americans--not just the very poor. And he would welcome international economic competition.

But the early Clinton ran into Americans' skepticism toward government of all kinds, especially its activist liberal variety.

So, after the GOP captured Congress in 1994, Clinton switched strategies. For the past three years, he has been identifying the issues that provoke public distrust of activist government, and, in a phrase used by his former political strategist Dick Morris, "taking them off the table."

Thus, he's emphasized balancing the budget and defusing divisive social issues, from crime and welfare to prayer in the schools and sex and violence on TV. And, in large measure, he has prevailed.

His much-maligned 1993 economic plan brought new prosperity and balanced the budget. His social initiatives, from school uniforms to the V-chip, presented government as a supporter of parental authority, not social breakdown.

And, at least until last week, he has been lucky. Crime-fighter Clinton benefited from the success of tough-love mayors such as Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York and Richard Riordan of Los Angeles, as well as demographic trends that diminished the numbers of adolescents, the age group most disposed to violence.

Now, Clinton needs to rediscover structural problems--from stagnant wages, to increasing inequality and declining educational attainments--that can't be cured by an upturn in the business cycle or a decline in the number of teenagers. He has also been worrying about his historic legacy and congressional Democrats' criticism that his centrism left them with an agenda gap.

So, if his announcements over the past month are any guide, he'll put new issues on the table, from expanding Medicare to folks 55 or older to providing child care for millions more working families and hiring tens of thousands of new teachers. Perhaps he'll propose raising the minimum wage again, or exploring a new "wage insurance" program for workers downsized out of good-paying jobs.

All this requires a rhetorical reversal by a president who has spent the past three years proclaiming the nation never had it so good and, besides, "The era of big government is over."

Last year's State of the Union address showed how even Clinton can have difficulty simultaneously minimizing the nation's problems and making the case for ambitious programs.

Clinton began by claiming credit for good news of all kinds--more jobs, less crime, reduced welfare rolls and world peace. Then, he declared, the nation still faces "a challenge as great as any in our peacetime history," explaining, "The enemy of our time is inaction."

One year later, as he prepares to offer his most ambitious agenda since 1994, he'll need a better rhetorical balancing act. He should take pride in a stronger economy and a more stable society, but acknowledge the problems he attacked in 1992: stagnant living standards and growing gaps between the wealthy and the middle class and between mainstream Americans and the poor.

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