WASHINGTON -- In the almost 20 years since he first ventured onto the national stage, President Clinton has always been a master of political illusion. Never has he demonstrated his legerdemain any more dramatically than in his State of the Union address.
The context was supposed to be awkward at best, menacing at worst. Sitting before him were all those Republicans from the House who want him removed from office and those 100 senators who hold his fate in their hands.
But Clinton behaved as if he were a master of ceremonies welcoming an audience of supporters anxious to hear what he had to say.
He seemed to be toying with his tormentors and laughing at the notion that this was a touchy situation. When a large number of Republicans as well as Democrats rose to applaud at one point, the president interrupted himself to point out, "There was more balance on the seesaw. I liked that."
The president's message was, like any State of the Union speech, largely intended for the millions of voters who watched at home. And the message was simply that the state of the union is terrific and likely to get better if the nation doesn't allow itself to be lulled into complacency by what he called "the hum of our prosperity."
Or, he might have added, if the Senate doesn't let this impeachment nonsense interfere.
The president spoke with the confidence of a politician who knew he had receptive listeners in the huge television audience, whatever the true feelings of the congressmen and senators arrayed below him.
The most recent polls continue to show his job approval ratings in the 60 to 65 percent range, sometimes higher, and consistently higher than those for any president at this stage of his stewardship since World War II.
But the president was not passive. As he has repeatedly since his party lost control of Congress four years ago, Clinton pushed the Republicans, already on the defensive, further down the field by offering initiatives of his own to supersede what they have proposed on issues as diverse as education, crime and medical care.
He did it so baldly that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, having been briefed on the text in advance, held an afternoon press briefing of his own to counter the ostensibly embattled president.
In political terms, Clinton's most aggressive initiative came on the single most important and sensitive question facing the nation these days -- the future of the Social Security system.
Clinton promised to spend most of the expected budget surplus to shore up the system for the next 15 years. And he promised programs that would put some of the money into private securities and encourage individual taxpayers to build retirement funds of their own. The GOP has been advocating similar approaches for years without success.
Clinton did not bother to offer any immediate tax relief, however, despite the prospect of surpluses as far as the eye can see. But the president and his advisers knew he already held the high ground on the issue.
Just last weekend a new opinion poll found Americans favored Democrats over Republicans 45 to 32 percent on having the "best ideas" on taxes.
The president's proposals were based, as has often been the case with him, on assumptions that might prove to be optimistic or otherwise mistaken.
The first, of course, is that the plans for rescuing both Social Security and Medicare are based on revenue projections that may be difficult to fulfill.
Budget projections have rarelybeen accurate. Even two years ago, neither the White House nor the Congressional Budget Office foresaw today's revenues pouring into the Treasury.
Secondly, and perhaps more to the point, Clinton's proposals did not deal with many of the touchy questions that have to be resolved before Social Security or Medicare can be finally reformed. What changes, if any, are going to be required in the retirement age? What changes, if any, are going to be made in the Medicare payments to hospitals and doctors?
Under the best of circumstances, Clinton could have a difficult time converting his grand illusion into reality. In last year's address, he proposed reform of health maintenance organizations, more federal help for child care, tougher campaign finance laws and faster track trade legislation. None of these is reality today.
Nor is the outlook for the coming year more auspicious. If there was any trust between Clinton and Republicans in Congress a year ago, it has gone up in the smoke of impeachment.
Clinton is a master at using political sleight of hand. But the picture he projected with so much panache of himself as a president fully in charge and capable of great accomplishment was just that, another illusion.
Highlights of speech
Some of President Clinton's proposals in his State of the Union address:
Transfer 62 percent of the nation's expected budget surpluses over the next 15 years -- $2.7 trillion -- to the Social Security account to keep the program solvent until 2055.
Invest 25 percent of that money in the stock market in search of higher returns.
Reserve 15 percent of thesurplus -- $650 billion -- to help the Medicare system.
Devote 11 percent of the surplus -- $500 billion -- to new government-subsidized retirement accounts.
Create a tax credit of up to $250 per child age 1 or younger for parents who stay home to care for them.
Establish a $1,000 tax credit for Americans with long-term health care needs and family members who care for them.
Boost the minimum wage $1 by September 2000 so the hourly base pay is $6.15.
Take action to ensure the privacy of medical records.
Improve public education by ending social promotion, helping the worst schools in a state, giving teachers performance exams, giving parents more information about their local school and implementing student discipline plans.
Spend $12 billion to improve military readiness and modernization in fiscal 2000 -- and a total of $110 billion over six years.
Push ahead with trade liberalization to counter growing protectionist sentiment as nations struggle to cope with the 18-month global currency crisis.
Miscellaneous Create a new clean-air fund to help communities reduce pollution, and tax incentives and investments to spur clean energy technologies.
Ensure the Year 2000 computer problem is fixed. Associated Press Pub Date: 1/20/99