BUFFALO, N.Y. — Taking his agenda on the road, President Clinton on Wednesday made the case that his newly unveiled initiatives to increase retirement security will help the young as well as the elderly.
"The aging of America affects everybody," he said. But after a year in which the president assiduously avoided large public events because of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, Clinton's traditional day-after State of the Union foray into America seemed as much about giving him a chance to bask in the support of a cheering public as it was about pitching programs.
Instead of quickly shushing the crowd as he often does, Clinton stood for several minutes enjoying the standing ovation of more than 20,000 people who waved flags and cheered in the arena of Buffalo's hockey team.
The president then tried to explain why he wants to use much of the government's projected budget surplus to bolster the Social Security retirement fund and Medicare health insurance.
Hints of Dissent on Lack of Tax Cut
But the reaction of the crowd offered an instant preview of the battle the president faces in trying to persuade Republicans in Congress--who advocate using the surplus to give Americans a 10% across-the-board tax cut--to adopt his plan.
Clinton rhetorically asked what the government should do with the surplus.
"We could give it all back to you and hope you spend it right," he said, provoking energetic applause from some in the audience.
Not deterred, Clinton then stressed that the money would be better spent his way: guaranteeing retirement income and health care coverage for the expanding number of older Americans as baby boomers and following generations retire.
"You're going to have everybody say that government doesn't know how to spend this money," Clinton said. "Look, folks, Social Security and Medicare work."
Unlike the several speakers who preceded him, including Vice President Al Gore, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and local political leaders, Clinton chose to focus on policy. By the time he began to speak, the crowd already was starting to disperse. As he made his argument for Social Security, a steady stream of people was heading for the doors.
"I'm sorry if I made the atmosphere too serious," Clinton said, as if appealing to the fleeing New Yorkers. "But I want you to think about this. We cannot afford to squander this moment."
Although Clinton's lawyers were engaged in presenting the second day of his defense to the Senate, he never directly commented on the trial or his impeachment by the House a month ago.
He did, however, relish a comparison that Gore made between the president and Buffalo Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek.
"I just wish one day they would give me a mask and a few pads when I dodge that stuff," Clinton said with a chuckle.
The president also told the crowd that Wednesday was the sixth anniversary of his first inauguration.
"It seems impossible to me that those six years have flown by," Clinton said. "They have been, to put it mildly, quite eventful."
Impeachment Was Hardly Forgotten
Even though no one mentioned the trial from the podium, it was clearly on the minds of many who crowded into the arena to get a look at the president.
Rick Sweeney, 26, a social studies teacher who accompanied the eighth-grade class from Lewiston-Porter Middle School, said the president's misdeeds and the congressional impeachment process have been a central topic in his classes over the last year. And he has come to an uncomfortable conclusion about what he would do if he were a senator.
"I'd probably vote for impeachment, even though I don't think it would be in the best interests of the country," said Sweeney, who rode with the children from Youngstown, about 40 minutes away and just north of Niagara Falls. "Based on what the law says, he should be convicted. No one should be above the law."
Sweeney's views were eagerly debated by his students.
Kaitlyn Adelizi, 13, and her friend Amber Chilberg, 15, said they believe Clinton should be removed.
"I think he should be kicked out because of the whole Monica thing and because he lied about it," Kaitlyn said. "If he admitted it, maybe he could stay."
"I agree," Amber chimed in. "He's supposed to be our president and set an example for us. He let us down."
They both said that the country would be better off if Gore took over.
But Jennelle Wyno, 13, disagreed: "I think he's a great guy. We all make mistakes. God forgives us for mistakes. We should forgive each other."
Zack Caterina, 13, blamed the trouble on Lewinsky. "I think Monica Lewinsky just wanted her 15 minutes of fame. They're up. It feels like she's had five years of it already.
"A lot of people have had affairs. Just because he's president, they're taking it too serious."
A teacher sitting a row ahead of him corrected him: "Serious-ly." Zack added: "Make sure you include the ly."