A year ago, the polls showed President Clinton in good political shape, buoyed by an improving economy. So he waved a pen at Congress and the nation. Give me a health care plan that covers everyone in America, he demanded; if you resort instead to half-measures, I will veto them.
In the end, of course, Congress gave Clinton no health care legislation at all, and the electorate gave him a swift punch in the nose, in the shape of Republican triumphs at the state, local and national levels.
The State of the Union Message the president delivered Tuesday night was notably short on demands for action and long on appeals for comity - a demonstration of just how much he has been weakened, in the last 12 months.
He once promised change as broad as it was bold. Now, he is on the defensive, proposing nothing remotely resembling the revolution that he and Hillary Rodham Clinton once espoused. Instead, he called for gradualism a la Bob Dole.
“Last year, we bit off more than we could chew,” Clinton said in a moment of clear-eyed candor.
“This year, let’s work together, step by step, to get something done.”
There were no explicit veto threats, although the president insisted that he would not accept any tax cut that threatened to send the deficit soaring.
So much has the political climate changed that Clinton was obliged to defend the very idea of activist government. With politics and politicians under a cloud, with Washington a symbol of incompetence, with term limits in vogue, he sought to rekindle the faith in government that burned in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Politicians and public servants, he said, are “keepers of a sacred trust,” not the self-aggrandizing windbags depicted by cartoonists and hosts of talk-radio shows.
Many of those who sat before him, new to Washington and to public life, won election by attacking the records and even the motives of the Democrats who dominated the House of Representatives for four decades and the Senate for most of that time. To their way of thinking, upholding the public trust involves minimizing government, rather than putting it back onto a pedestal.
For those who hoped that the president would move to the middle in response to the election returns, the speech was a success.
But for those who hoped for signs of a new political acuity and a new personal discipline in the White House, it must have constituted a disappointment - almost an hour and a half long and a reminder of Clinton’s seemingly endless nominating speech at the 1988 Democratic convention.
The months ahead will center around a battle for the symbolic high ground: are the Republicans the agents of change and the Democrats the defenders of the bureaucratic status quo? Or are the Democrats the agents of change and the Republicans the reactionary champions of trickle-down economics?
After almost three months in which he played a largely passive role, the president joined that battle Tuesday night, and its outcome will determine his electoral fate.
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