WASHINGTON -- Beyond the melodrama of President Clinton's address to a Congress considering his removal from office, his State of the Union speech marked yet another example of his favorite tactic of coopting the Republicans on a key issue of importance to voters.
This time it is his proposal to spend most of the government budget surplus to bolster Social Security -- an idea the GOP has been pressing, along with its call last year for part of the surplus to go for a tax cut.
Mr. Clinton successfully buried the tax-cut notion favored by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but the investment of federal funds on Wall Street remained a central Republican initiative. Last year, the White House and Democratic congressional leaders largely dismissed the idea, arguing that funds on which the elderly are so dependent should not be made subject to the unpredictability of the stock market.
But this is another year. Last night, the president talked in his address about the need to take new innovative steps not only to save the Social Security system, but also improve the lot of the older generation in its retirement years.
Whereas last year he insisted that none of the surplus be used until the solvency of the Social Security system was guaranteed, this time around he is proposing transferring 62 percent -- or $2.7 trillion -- over the next 15 years to extend that solvency to the year 2055 while investing 20 to 25 percent in the market under a carefully monitored scheme that can bring higher returns to the system.
Grabbing another Republican idea and modifying it to his purposes, Mr. Clinton proposes reserving another 11 percent, or $500 billion, of the projected surpluses to create what he calls Universal Savings Accounts -- producing the fortuitous acronym USA -- that would enable all working Americans to save for retirement the way more affluent citizens now can invest in individual retirement accounts.
Under this scheme, the government would provide a minimal contribution -- maybe $100 -- to which workers could make additional contributions, with Uncle Sam matching 50 percent or more of them, up to a full dollar-for-dollar match for lower-income workers. The Clinton plan would also reserve 15 percent of the expected surpluses for Medicare as a means of ensuring the solvency of the Medicare Trust Fund for 20 years.
The president's call in his speech for a bipartisan approach in Congress to find the best way to implement and oversee the investment of the allotted surplus funds in the market, managed by a private-sector mechanism yet to be determined. That, clearly, is more easily said than done.
But on first blush, Mr. Clinton appears once again to have politically disarmed, or at least disconcerted, his Republican adversaries in the debate about what to do in the short term to "save" the Social Security system in the long term as the specter of an aging baby-boom generation looms ahead, which can outrun in demands the funds available later in the 21st century.
This proposal and the others Mr. Clinton presented in his State of the Union address did not, to be sure, eclipse the drama of his impeachment trial, especially considering the backdrop for his appearance was the House chamber, where he was impeached in December.
But it did underscore his continuing contention that he remains able to conduct "the people's business" and the job "the American people hired me for" under the colossal distraction of trying to save his presidency.
At a minimum, he has put something more on the congressional plate for the good lawmakers to consider while his personal ordeal goes on. With Social Security remaining a prime concern with voters around the country, focusing on its solvency and reform in his drama-filled appearance was a shrewd political gambit.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 1/20/99