Clinton calls for 'new social compact' PRESIDENT CLINTON'S STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, trying to connect with a nation that increasingly looks outside government for its answers, called last night for a "new social compact" in which Americans exercise not just rights, but also responsibilities to their families, their neighbors and their country.

"We are the keepers of a sacred trust," the president said in his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

"Opportunity and responsibility; they go hand in hand. "We can't have one without the other. And our national community can't hold together without both."

In what White House officials hoped would be seen as a conciliatory and healing speech, the president also said Americans haven't been getting the leadership they deserve from their elected officials -- and he didn't blame one party or the other.

"We cannot ask Americans to be better citizens if we are not better servants," he said.

Mr. Clinton hit all the notes he and his advisers wanted to -- but at the cost of brevity. A speech that aides had estimated at 35 to 40 minutes went an hour and 21 minutes.

Former Reagan administration speech-writer Peggy Noonan compared it to Mr. Clinton's infamous and ponderous 1988 speech, when bored delegates at the Democratic convention cheered when Mr. Clinton uttered the words, "In conclusion . . . "

And in the Republicans' rebuttal, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman began by quipping, "Before I begin, let me assure you I am not going to ask for equal time."

But Mr. Clinton, two years into his term, obviously felt he had much to say; he is at a pivotal point in his presidency, and aides said the president wanted to show that he'd gotten the message Americans sent Nov. 8 -- that they want a less expensive, more efficient government.

Mr. Clinton also tried to demonstrate that the needs and desires of the vast middle class have been on his mind all the time.

"In these efforts, I have made my mistakes and learned again the humility in all human endeavor," he said. "But I am proud to say that, tonight, our country is stronger than it was two years ago."

He then spoke of the economic progress of the past two years, lower federal budget deficits and unemployment, and higher productivity.

He called on Congress to enact political and campaign limits on everything from gifts to lawmakers from lobbyists to the total amounts of money spent on campaigns -- all in the name of reducing the power of special interests and increasing the influence of ordinary Americans.

In a bit of political theater that Democrats in the audience appreciated, Mr. Clinton illustrated this issue by challenging Congress to simply forgo gifts from lobbyists -- a favorite target -- of talk radio hosts -- even if they don't get around immediately to enacting a ban into law.

Democrats, who have been blasting Republicans on this issue, stood immediately, shouting and clapping. On the Republican side of the aisle, Republicans looked over, then urged their colleagues to get up and clap, too, which they then did.

Moments later, the tables were turned when Mr. Clinton spoke of Americans' desire for a leaner and more efficient government.

This time, Republicans, led by Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, rose as one and roared their approval.

Behind him on the dais, Vice President Al Gore and Speaker Newt Gingrich appeared at times to be on a kind of see-saw -- one would rise in applause as the other sat on his hands in silence.

The image underscored the fact that last night, Mr. Clinton was facing a joint session of Congress very different from the one he spoke to a year ago, when he confidently outlined his ambitious health care plan.

That night, he held aloft his pen, threatening theatrically to veto any plan that fell short of guaranteeing universal health insurance to every American.

That sweeping plan, however, disappeared and is rarely

mentioned by White House officials -- except as an example of what went wrong in 1994. Gone, too, are the Democratic majorities that applauded so loudly at the line about his veto.

Last night, Mr. Clinton spoke to a Congress controlled by Republicans who are particularly skeptical of this president.

But Mr. Clinton offered the Republicans a hand of partnership, telling them he believed the American people want politicians to put aside "partisanship and pettiness and pride."

The president himself practiced what he preached last night, making a point at the beginning of his speech turning to face Mr. Gingrich and congratulating him on becoming House speaker with the Republican takeover of Congress.

After turning back to the assembly, he added good-naturedly, "If we agree on nothing else here tonight, we must agree American people voted for change in 1994 -- and in 1992. And looking out, I know how some of you must have felt in 1992."

Mr. Clinton also demonstrated his bipartisan instincts by lauding all the presidents who successfully conducted the Cold War -- singling out two, Harry S. Truman, a Democrat to whom Mr. Clinton privately compares himself, and Ronald Reagan, a hero to the Republicans in the hall and a man battling Alzheimer's disease in retirement.

Democratic liberals looking for a display of a Truman-like fighting spirit got a dose last night from Mr. Clinton, who passionately defended not only his record of the past two years, but also several administration initiatives in progress.

Those included the waiting period to buy handguns, the ban on most assault weapons and his national service corps.

He showed the most emotion when talking about the Brady bill, which requires a five-day waiting period for handguns.

"I will not let that ban be repealed!" he said. "I will not."

The president also echoed Democratic criticism of the GOP's proposed balanced-budget amendment -- they haven't yet identified enough spending cuts to make it work, he said -- and warned against sweeping welfare reform plans that "punish children for the mistakes of their parents."

In what may have been the most evocative moment of the speech, he chose a member of the audience to illustrate his point that welfare reform should not further punish those who are already poor or who have made mistakes in the past.

"All of us have made our mistakes, and none of us can change our yesterdays, but every one of us can change our tomorrows," he said. "And America's best example of that may be Lynn Woolsey, who worked her way off welfare to become a congresswoman from the state of California."

With that Ms. Woolsey, a Democrat, put her hand over her mouth in apparent surprise. She stood up only when urged to by her colleagues, smiled -- and blew a kiss to the president.

To illustrate his idea that Americans should take personal responsibility for solving the nation's problems, Mr. Clinton also introduced six citizens that White House aides had seated near first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in the visitors gallery.

They included an Americorps volunteer from Kentucky and the Revs. John and Diana Cherry of the AME Zion Church of Temple Hills, Md., whose congregation numbers more than 17,000.

Keeping families together is a special focus of their ministry, Mr. Clinton said, noting that Mr. Cherry once left a meeting of religious leaders at the White House in order to minister to 150 couples he had brought to his church in an effort to persuade them to keep their marriages together for the benefit of their children.

He also defended his efforts to reform the health care system and, to heavy Democratic applause, challenged the Republican-led Congress to work with him on the issue. And he began building the case for an increase in the federal minimum wage, arguing that in real-dollar terms it was at its lowest point in 40 years.

The wage has been $4.25 for the past four years. Mr. Clinton didn't suggest a specific dollar figure, but he said with emotion, "You can't make a living on $4.25 an hour."

He added, "Members of Congress have been here less than a month, but by the end of the week, 28 days into the New Year, every member of Congress will have earned as much in congressional salary as a minimum-wage worker makes all year long."

But the overall tenor of his speech was not a defense of traditional Democratic policies, which many voters see as rewarding those who don't work at the expense of those who do.

Throughout the speech, Mr. Clinton emphasized his view that government must do more to reward the middle class -- and to help the working poor join the middle class.

He touted his "middle-class bill of rights," a series of proposed tax cuts aimed at middle-class families with children, including a $10,000 tax deduction for college tuition.

He also called for passage of such Republican favorites as a line-item veto, a limit on "unfunded mandates" that the federal government can impose on the states, aggressive action to curb illegal immigration, a reduction in federal regulations, and a federal effort targeting teen-age pregnancy.

Until now, the focus of the administration in welfare reform has been mostly on job training for welfare recipients -- and requiring them to work to continue receiving benefits after two years -- but conservatives have argued that reducing the number of out-of-wedlock births is the only long-term answer.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
55°