Challenges, not promises President says nation heads into bright 'age of possibility'; His 4th State of the Union; Big government over, Clinton says, calling for shared commitment; STATE OF THE UNION


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton proclaimed last night that a strong America was entering a bright new "age of possibility" but cautioned that this future would require a more efficient government and a shared commitment from everyone.

"The era of big government is over," Mr. Clinton declared in his fourth State of the Union address, echoing a cherished Republican theme.

"But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves. We must go forward as one America -- a nation working together, to meet the challenges we face together."

Mr. Clinton began with a traditional nod to American soldiers stationed abroad, particularly those in harm's way in Bosnia. In a moving aside, he also singled out Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole -- his most likely presidential opponent this year -- in a tribute to all of those who fought in World War II and all the nation's wars.

"I salute your service," the president said to bipartisan cheers.

Sounding alternately like a politician in an election year, a nagging parent and a dreamy futurist, Mr. Clinton issued dozens of sweeping challenges in seven broad areas of American life.

Their common thread was that private citizens, corporations, small business owners -- with help from Washington -- must work, indeed sacrifice, for the public well-being.

The president challenged businesses to clean up toxic industrial sites, the entertainment industry to clean up its filth and violence, tobacco companies to quit targeting children and schools to teach "character education."

"America was built on challenges, not promises," he said. "When we work together, we never fail. That is the key to a more perfect union: Our individual dreams must be realized by common efforts."

He challenged parents to turn off televisions and attend back-to-school nights. He urged welfare mothers to undertake job training and the fathers of welfare children to play meaningful roles in the lives of their offspring.

The president made the same appeal to all fathers, whether divorced, married or never married.

"If your family has separated, you must pay your child support," Mr. Clinton said. "But let's admit: A check will never be a substitute for a parent's love and guidance, and only you can make the decision to help raise your children. No matter who you are it is your most basic human duty."

Mr. Clinton is a father, too, and he deviated from his text briefly to pay an affectionate compliment to his wife and the mother of his own child, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mrs. Clinton has been beleaguered by the release of files that raise questions about her role in the Whitewater scandal and in the 1993 firing of the White House travel office. In a political embarrassment for the White House, she has been subpoenaed by a special prosecutor to testify before a federal grand jury Friday.

Last night, Mrs. Clinton sat beside her daughter, Chelsea, as the president, in an emotional gesture, saluted her as "a wonderful wife, a magnificent mother and a great first lady."

This year's speech, though covering a wide range of goals, lasted almost exactly an hour -- 20 minutes shorter than last year's.

One of the biggest applause lines came when Mr. Clinton spoke about the limits to what the federal government can achieve, a principle that has guided the Republicans' legislative agenda since they took over Congress last year.

"We know big government does not have all the answers," Mr. Clinton said. "We know there is not a program for every problem."

Republicans in the hall accepted this admission as a hard-won and long-overdue concession from a president who had two years before proposed that the federal government all but take over the nation's health care system.

But Republicans were quick to point out that although Mr. Clinton insisted that the nation's future problems would be handled by a smaller, leaner government, he simultaneously proposed a number of government initiatives to deal with those problems.

The initiatives include:

* A new program to pay a $1,000 college scholarship to public school seniors in the top 5 percent of their graduating classes.

* An expansion of the college work-study program, from 750,000 students to 1 million a year.

* A tax credit, which he proposed once before, of up to $10,000 for college tuition.

* An increase in the minimum wage to $5.15 per hour, from $4.25.

* Use of the FBI to fight youth gangs across the country, in a concerted campaign against youth violence that he likened to the FBI's war on the Mafia.

To drive home the metaphor that the fight against crime is a war, last night he named Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, a hero of the Persian Gulf war, as his new drug policy director.

But if Mr. Clinton sounded like a cultural conservative when he talked about such issues as crime and television programming and parenting, he reverted to the tradition of previous Democratic presidents' State of the Union addresses in proposing ambitious government-led initiatives.

White House aides sounded defensive when asked what these proposals might cost at a time when Mr. Clinton is promising reductions in spending without crippling such entitlement programs as Medicaid and Medicare.

Gene Sperling, a White House economic adviser, estimated that the educational programs alone would cost at least $3 billion over seven years.

Although Mr. Clinton, in the tradition of State of the Union addresses, stayed on a mostly bipartisan plane, he did not gloss over the fact that Congress is now in Republican hands. Nor did he run from the budget fight between him and the Republicans that consumed so much of 1995.

He urged Republicans to accept a limited victory: A balanced budget over seven years -- but his version of it, not theirs. But late in his address, in the most partisan section, Mr. Clinton threatened more vetoes, implored Congress never to shut the government down again and pledged not to back away from support for programs that benefit the poor, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor.

In the Republican response, Mr. Dole also initially set a nonpartisan mood, prefacing his remarks by saying "a reply need not be an argument." But the Kansas Republican, offering a starkly contrasting view of the nation's direction, devoted most of his speech to criticizing Mr. Clinton -- and his party -- directly.

"The president has chosen to defend with his veto, a welfare system that no one can defend -- for it is a daily assault on the values of self-reliance and family," Mr. Dole said. "He has chosen to defend an education establishment run by liberals whose goal is to operate every school in America by remote control from Washington."

Mr. Clinton also followed another tradition of State of the Union addresses: He articulated a new and expanding vision of American foreign policy.

"As the Cold War fades," he said, "voices of isolation say America should retreat from its responsibilities. I say they are wrong. The threats we Americans face respect no nation's borders: terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, organized crime, drug trafficking, ethnic and religious hatred, aggression by rogue states, environmental degradation. If we fail to address these threats today, we will suffer the consequences of our neglect in all our tomorrows."

Citing America's so-far successful military interventions in Bosnia and Haiti as examples and pointing hopefully to diplomatic efforts in Northern Ireland, North Korea and the Mideast, the president outlined the horizons -- and limits -- of what might someday be seen as the Clinton Doctrine.

"Of course, we can't be everywhere," he said. "Of course, we can't do everything. But where our interests and our values are at stake -- and where we can make a difference -- America must lead.

"We must not be isolationist. We must not be the world's policeman. But we can -- and should -- be the world's very best peacemaker."

The one light moment of the night came at the beginning when Mr. Clinton handed House Speaker Newt Gingrich a note.

Asked earlier in the day what he longed to hear most in Mr. Clinton's speech, Mr. Gingrich had quipped, "Thank you and good night." So when Mr. Clinton arrived in the House chamber, he handed the speaker a sheet of paper with those words written on it.

"I received this proposed draft of my State of the Union Address from your office," the president's note said. "Thank you for your input. Is there room for common ground? -- Bill Clinton."

Both men laughed. And then the president proceeded to speak for 61 minutes.

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