WASHINGTON -- Getting away from such political unpleasantries as his controversial new policy on gays in the military and the sacking of the FBI director, President Clinton turned his attention yesterday to the issue his advisers believe will define the Clinton presidency -- his economic legislation now before the Congress.
"Yes, it is painful. Yes, it is difficult," Mr. Clinton said of his plan that raises taxes on well-off Americans, cuts some spending programs while adding to others and which seeks to achieve $500 billion in deficit reduction over the next five years. "But it is progress. It is change. It will make a difference. And it is focused on the long-run interest of the people of this country."
Mr. Clinton's remarks began what aides characterize as a seven-day sales tour for his program, a campaign that will bring him to Maryland today, saw him on "Larry King Live" last night, and will put him in Chicago at a jobs conference on Monday.
The opening salvo came in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill where Mr. Clinton made remarks to Democratic members of the House and Senate who sit on a joint committee seeking to iron out differences in the versions of Mr. Clinton's budget passed by the two houses.
"We have come this far," the president implored the Democrats. "This is no time to turn back. We have been bold. This is no time to be timid. We have faced this crisis squarely. This is no time to blink."
Mr. Clinton also pursued a strategy of talking directly to the American people in hopes that they will exert subtle pressure on Congress to support him.
On "Larry King" Live he kept steering the conversation back to the economic plan. By the end of the hour-long show, at least some in his audience were in agreement with the president that this is more important than other issues they've been hearing about.
One caller asked the president what he would like his legacy to be, and he replied, "I'd like to get this economy moving again, get the deficit down, and start creating jobs to see working Americans' incomes go up."
The president's stated goal in all this is to cut through what he called the "fog" generated by Republican opponents in Congress. And though he said yesterday that he hoped "conscientious" Republicans would end up voting for the economic package, when it comes out of the conference committee, the White House offensive is clearly aimed at influencing congressional Democrats, either directly or by appealing to their constituents.
Because no Republicans supported Mr. Clinton's plan on the first go-around in Congress, none was invited to Mr. Clinton's speech yesterday. He also plans to meet with the Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus and the Women's Caucus, press secretary Dee Dee Myers said. She also said the president will address a caucus of conservative Democrats as well as the freshmen Democrats.
In his speech to the Democratic conferees yesterday, Mr. Clinton was clearly attempting to recapture the spirit of Feb. 17, when he electrified the nation and Democrats in Congress by articulating the need for change in federal taxing and spending priorities.
The audience for yesterday's speech was vastly smaller, but Mr. Clinton seemed to find his voice again after months of struggling with vexing side issues ranging from the firing of the White House travel office to the struggle to soften the ban on gays in the military.
"For a very long time, there has been a kind of political paralysis in this country where we always knew what we had to do, but we could never quite bring ourselves to do it," the president told his often fractious fellow Democrats. "Now, because of your help and your leadership and the raw courage many of you have demonstrated, we have brought our country to the verge of fundamental economic change. The new direction that I discussed with you in February at the State of the Union address is at hand."
In a revamped version of that sales pitch, the president yesterday outlined four themes about his budget that he intends to hammer away on during the coming days:
* It reduces the projected amount of federal deficit spending. "This deficit is a bone in the throat of America," the president said.
* It hits hardest at those in the upper-income brackets. "We ought to return to the fundamental notion of fairness. Those who have the most should pay the most," he said.
* It leaves the middle class largely unscathed by tax increases. The president estimated them at only $50 a year, apparently signaling a significant White House retreat on energy taxes, but also providing Mr. Clinton with an irresistible one-liner:
"You cannot make me believe . . . that the average middle-class family with an income above $30,000 a year and below the income tax increase threshold wouldn't pay a buck a week to get this deficit down."
* It offers incentive for poor people to work -- and for business to invest in poor neighborhoods. "We cannot ignore the fundamental economic reality that a lot of Americans are still left out and left behind in this weak economy," he said. "We have got to have incentives in the final bill to spur growth, to create jobs."