At the midpoint of his term and the low point of his presidency, Bill Clinton sought to reassert his political leadership Tuesday night with a vaulting State of the Union address that asked the new Republican majority to help him “get rid of yesterday’s government” so the American people can prosper in tomorrow’s world.
Clinton advocated a higher minimum wage, announced a national campaign against teenage pregnancy, endorsed a computerized registry to crack down on the hiring of illegal immigrants and proposed that congressional candidates who agree to spending limits receive free television time.
But the larger message of his speech was a return to the themes from his 1992 campaign that had been eclipsed during his first two years in office - forging a “New Covenant” with citizens so the country could better respond to the “new economy” and the “new world” that have left many middle-class Americans insecure and uncertain about their future.
“If we agree on nothing else, we must agree that the American people certainly voted for change in 1992 and 1994,” he ruefully told a joint session filled with dozens of new Republican faces. “In both years, we didn’t hear America singing; we heard America shouting. Now, we must say: ‘We hear you. We will work together to earn the jobs you have given us.”’
Standing for the first time before a Republican-controlled Congress, the president stressed the possibilities of conciliation. But he repeatedly laid out sharp differences with Republicans over how best to cut taxes, overhaul welfare, reduce regulation and fight crime - all likely battlegrounds this year.
In the official Republican response, delivered from Trenton, N.J., Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey argued that the country is in the midst of a Republican-led “revolution of ideas” to reduce government and disperse power to states and cities. The Republicans’ decision to have a governor as their messenger for the first time was designed to underline that message.
“While at times tonight some of the president’s ideas sounded pretty Republican, the fact remains that he has been opposed to the balanced budget amendment, he proposed even more government spending and he imposed the biggest tax increase in American history,” Whitman said.
“It’s clear that your votes in November sounded a warning to the president,” she went on. “If he has changed his biggovernment agenda, we say great: Join us as we change America.”
She ignored Clinton’s specific initiatives (in fact, her speech was taped and distributed before he had begun to speak), underscoring what may prove to be president’s most difficult dilemma: Not whether members of Congress applauded Tuesday, but whether they will pay much attention to what he said when they debate legislation this morning.
From his chair on the dais, House Speaker Newt Gingrich was literally looking over the president’s shoulder as he spoke. “Welcome to the House of Representatives,” he told Clinton when he arrived. And before the speech, Gingrich made only conciliatory remarks, promising Republicans would “look through the speech carefully for everything we can agree on.”
The almost patronizing tone from some Republicans - who clearly feel free to pick and choose from among the president’s proposals - was another reminder of how they are now driving the national agenda, and how vulnerable and potentially irrelevant Clinton has become.
In last year’s State of the Union, Clinton defiantly demanded that Congress pass a health care bill that included universal coverage. Tuesday night, with his rejected health care plan now a symbol of his troubles, Clinton said he had “bit off more than we could chew” and urged Congress to work “step by step and get something done.”
On some issues, from a line-item veto to an overhaul of welfare, Clinton said he hoped to work with Republicans. But on other issues, he vowed to draw the line, signaling he would veto any attempt to disband the National Service program or repeal the assault-weapons ban. “I will not see that ban repealed,” he declared flatly, to the cheers of most Democrats and a stony silence from many Republicans.
And he emphasized the “Middle Class Bill of Rights” he unveiled last month, which would give tax breaks to working families with children, parents paying college tuition and people saving for retirement.
On other issues, the president:
Warned that welfare changes shouldn’t punish the poor. “We should require work and mutual responsibility, but we shouldn’t cut people off because they are poor, young, or unmarried,” he said. “We shouldn’t punish poor children for the mistakes of their parents.”
Lobbied for his embattled $40 million loan guarantee package to bolster the Mexican peso. Though endorsed by both Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, it has run into serious roadblocks in Congress. “We have to act, for the sake of millions of Americans whose livelihoods are tied to Mexico’s well being,” he declared.
Challenged members of Congress to simply stop accepting gifts from lobbyists, even before a law banning the practice is passed. For the first time, he also backed the idea of giving congressional candidates free television time if they agree to spending limits.
Told supporters of the balanced-budget amendment “to be straight with the American people” and specify the cuts the amendment would require, suggesting it could threaten Social Security.
MEMO: See also sidebar which appeared with this story under headline “Clinton’s proposals”