WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, declaring that "once again, the buck stops here," challenged Congress last night to pass sweeping health care legislation, reform the nation's welfare system and make the nation's streets safer -- all this year.
"Let us give our children a future," the president beseeched in his first State of the Union message.
In his first year in office, Mr. Clinton earned a reputation as someone who could be cajoled and bullied into altering key components of his legislation. Last night, though he expressed gratitude and respect for what Congress had accomplished in the past year, Mr. Clinton served notice that on these three issues there is little room for compromise.
"Hear me clearly," said the president while addressing his proposal for universal national health care insurance. "If the legislation you send me does not guarantee every American private health insurance that can never be taken away, then I will take this pen, veto that legislation, and we'll come right back here and start over again."
That brought Congress' liberal Democrats to their feet, but the president also sounded very much like the "new kind of Democrat" he promised he'd be when running for election when he vowed to send Congress a bill that requires able-bodied welfare recipients to work, requires absent fathers to pay child support and ends the government's policy of automatically making payments to underage mothers.
"We will say to teen-agers, 'If you have a child out of wedlock, we will no longer give you a check to set up a separate household.' We want families to stay together."
Finally, the president sounded a theme on crime that appealed to both ideological wings in Congress.
"Violent crime and the fear it provokes are crippling our society, limiting personal freedom, and fraying the ties that bind us," he said. "The crime bill before Congress gives you a chance to do something about it -- to be tough and smart."
The variety of guests seated in the gallery with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton underscored the array of themes touched on by the president. The anti-crime theme was represented by Kevin Jett of the New York City Police Department, whom Mr. Clinton introduced to the chamber as "a brave, young detective . . . whose beat is eight square blocks in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York City."
It also was represented by a victim of America's gun violence, former Reagan administration press secretary James Brady, who was wounded by a would-be assassin in 1981.
In an emotional ad-lib, Mr. Clinton pointed to Mr. Brady and said to emotional applause, "And Jim Brady, thank you for being here. God bless you, sir!"
Last February's economic address to Congress is cited universally by Mr. Clinton's advisers as his first year's finest hour. In that speech, Mr. Clinton, ad-libbing freely, spoke with the Congress in conversational, easy-to-understand language about the need for "shared sacrifice," to get America's economy moving again.
Last night, he spoke in glowing terms about the nation's slow but steady economic recovery, being careful not to take all the credit. He also extolled what he saw as the highlights of his first year in office.
These triumphs included the passage of the Brady bill, which requires a five-day waiting period for purchasing handguns; the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees Americans time to be with newborns or sick family members; the North American Free Trade Agreement, which links Canada, the United States and Mexico in a single free-trade zone; and his budget plan, which reversed many of the priorities of the Reagan Revolution.
The president peppered his speech with real-life examples of the trials of individual Americans as a way of illustrating his view that an activist government can work to make the lives of everyday people better.
As expected, he hit hard on the issue of violent crime, endorsing a federal law of "three strikes and you're out" that would keep career criminals in prison for life.
Top White House aides expressed hopes that last night's address would shore up support among the public and Mr. Clinton's congressional allies for his sweeping health care reform, which the president unveiled in a nationally televised address Sept. 22 and is scheduled to be tackled by Congress beginning today.
As crime has become a dominant issue in American politics, there has been consternation among Mr. Clinton's supporters on Capitol Hill over whether the White House still considered the lack of universal health care coverage in this country to be the most important legislative issue of 1994.
The buzzword -- at least inside the Washington Beltway -- was whether the president considered the nation's health care system to be in a "crisis."
This question took on additional weight when influential Democratic Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan of New York said recently, "We don't have a health care crisis in America. We have a welfare crisis." Eager to soothe the powerful Senate Finance Committee chairman, who has considerable influence over the fate of the Clinton health care plan, administration aides consulted Mr. Moynihan during the preparation of the speech and the president met personally with the senator at the White House yesterday afternoon.
Mr. Clinton sought to make it clear last night that he believes the nation has both a health care crisis and a welfare crisis -- as well as a crisis of violent crime -- and that he expects legislative action this year on all three.
Congressional leaders visited the White House in December, asking that they not be asked to fashion health care and welfare reform in the same year, but the word came back this week that the White House was going to push to do just that.
"We fully expect both of them to pass this year," Vice President Al Gore said in a briefing for a group of reporters yesterday afternoon.
In going public with its ambitious legislative plan of action, the administration is throwing down the gauntlet to Congress, which is battling public perceptions that it is ineffectual. According to the White House plan of action, Congress will pass anti-crime legislation quickly, then tackle health care. After that clears the various committees by late spring, the White House will introduce its welfare proposals.
Mr. Clinton said last night that this issue is inexorably intertwined with health care and that the two must be done virtually together.
Millions of Americans remain on welfare instead of joining the work force at the bottom rung, he said, "because it's the only way they can get health care coverage for their families."
"Until we solve the health care problem we will not solve the welfare problem," the president added.
Mr. Clinton reiterated his stance that universal health care that can never be taken away ought to be a fundamental right of all Americans -- characterizing it as the one, nonnegotiable aspect of his plan.
The president spent considerable time explaining his administration's foreign policy, especially why he believes it is so important to nurture democracy in Russia.
He warned Americans about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and drew attention to the deal he recently helped broker, in which Ukraine's president agreed to dismantle his nation's nuclear arsenal -- the third largest in the world.
Mr. Clinton said his budget for the coming fiscal year, which he will submit to Congress for consideration on Feb. 7, would not call for additional defense cuts.
"Many people urged me to cut our defense spending again so we could pay for other government programs," he said. "I told them 'No.' "
Earlier in the day, however, Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, suggested that the defense cuts made already have been too deep.
Mr. Murtha questioned the ability of U.S. forces to fight two regional wars simultaneously and predicted that Mr. Clinton's first major foreign policy test would be in North Korea, which is believed to be constructing nuclear weapons.
In his address, Mr. Clinton did not offer a discussion of the ethnic war raging in Bosnia, the crisis which has been the biggest disappointment of his own foreign policy team.