February 5, 1997 in Nation/World

Education, Budget Top Clinton Agenda ‘The Enemy Of Our Time Is Inaction,’ Says President

Robert A. Rankin And David Hess Knight-Ridder
 

President Clinton challenged the Republican Congress Tuesday night to join him in a bipartisan crusade to strengthen American education and clean up the nation’s unfinished business, beginning with balancing the federal budget.

In his fourth State of the Union message, Clinton laid out a lengthy four-year plan of action - crowned by those twin centerpiece proposals - that he said would prepare the nation to compete in the global economy of the 21st century.

“We face no imminent threat, but we do have an enemy: The enemy of our time is inaction,” the president said.

On balance, the 60-minute speech was vintage Clinton - long and filled with grandiose words to dress up modest proposals. He opened by saying that America faces “a challenge as great as any in our peacetime history,” for example, then outlined a better-schools agenda more typical of a governor than a president.

“The greatest step of all, the high threshold for the future we must now cross - and my No. 1 priority for the next four years is to ensure that all Americans have the best education in the world,” Clinton stressed.

“Let’s work together to meet these goals: Every 8-year-old must be able to read; every 12-year-old must be able to log on to the Internet; every 18-year-old must be able to go to college; and every adult American must be able to keep on learning for a lifetime.”

The president’s overall agenda encompassed the long list of proposals he has trumpeted since the Democratic National Convention last August, including calls for national education standards, college-tuition tax breaks, and reforms for welfare, health care and campaign finance.

Beyond such programmatic proposals, Clinton also emphasized the duty each American holds to renew the nation’s spirit through voluntary service to community, and by reaching across divisions of race, gender and ethnicity to forge a unity of common purpose.

On that point, he recalled that the Rev. Robert Schuller - a California televangelist present in the gallery as a guest of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton - had suggested that he include a biblical passage, Isaiah 58:12, in his second inaugural address.

“Here’s what it says: ‘Thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations, and thou shalt be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in,” Clinton said.

“I placed my hand on that verse when I took the oath of office on behalf of all Americans,” he continued. “For no matter what our differences - in our faiths, our backgrounds, our politics - we must all be repairers of the breach.”

Both that passage and Clinton’s focus on education illustrate how heavily he intends to use the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to shape his second term - not least because the GOP Congress cannot block his efforts to lead through rhetorical power.

Republican response

In the GOP response to Clinton, Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, a 39-year-old former football star at the University of Oklahoma, took the offense in a move to recoup some of the standard Republican themes that the president had so deftly used during the presidential campaign last year.

Watts reminded viewers of the basic differences between the two political parties, stressing the Republican preference for a smaller national government and greater individual responsibility in governing the lives and fortunes of families and small businesses.

“The strength of America is not in Washington,” Watts said. “The strength of America is at home. … The strength of America is not on Wall Street but on Main Street, not in big business but in small businesses. … It’s not in Congress, it’s in the city council.”

One top Republican said he wasn’t impressed by Clinton’s rhetoric.

“The president has proven time and again that he can talk the talk. The question is: Can he walk the walk?,” said Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House majority whip.

“Last year he proclaimed that the era of big government is over and then proposed programs and regulations that would cost billions of dollars more in spending,” DeLay said. “This year he promises to submit a balanced budget while he works to kill our efforts to pass a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution … I’m reminded of President Reagan’s old saying - ‘trust, but verify.”’

Education

Clinton, in making education his top priority, chose a subject over which the federal government exercises limited influence; states and localities essentially govern education in America. Washington contributes only 7 percent of the $250 billion spent annually in this country on elementary and secondary education, and only 12 percent of college funds, although it does provide 75 percent of the money for college student loans.

Yet despite that limited federal role, the president devoted more attention to education than to any other subject in his address, which chief executives traditionally use each year to try to set the national agenda. That shows not only the importance he attaches to the issue - which he called a “critical national security issue for our future” - but also how he intends to lead in an era of tight budgets and Republican dominance.

“Tonight I issue a challenge to the nation,” Clinton said. “Every state should adopt high national standards, and by 1999, every state should test every fourth-grader in reading and every eighth-grader in math to make sure these standards are met.”

Unfinished business

Turning to unfinished business, Clinton asked Congress to balance the budget by fiscal 2002, a goal leaders in both parties say is within reach this year. He also called for Congress to make last year’s welfare reform work better by granting tax breaks to businesses that hire former welfare recipients, and by boosting benefits for legal immigrants.

The president also challenged Congress to overhaul campaign-finance law by July 4. That seems unlikely, as the GOP Congress intends to spend at least several months before then focusing high-profile investigative hearings into questionable fund raising by Clinton and the Democrats. Most Republicans are little interested in campaign-finance reform; their party raises more money than the Democrats under current rules.

On other topics, the president called for bigger investments in the Internet, space exploration and medical science. He urged extending health insurance step by step to the 40 million Americans who still lack it, starting with some of the 10 million children left uncovered.

Foreign affairs

Clinton devoted more time than usual to discussing the challenges America faces in foreign affairs. He emphasized that America must remain strong if it is to remain “the indispensable nation” on the global stage.

He said his top foreign-policy goal of the year is to expand NATO to include central European countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary without unduly riling Russia, which used to control them as buffers against the West and is unsettled by NATO’s absorption of them.

MEMO: Cut in Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: Highlights Education. His No. 1 priority, President Clinton called for national standards; a merit system for teachers; a literacy campaign; expansion of Head Start; more school choices for parents; federal help in repairing schools; and at least two years of college for all, subsidized by new tax breaks. Balanced budget. He will offer a plan to balance the budget while protecting Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment, making government work better and giving targeted middle-class tax relief. Amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget is unnecessary and could threaten the nation in a crisis, jeopardize Social Security and lead to higher taxes. Campaign overhaul. Congress should pass by July 4 a bill to reduce spending on election campaigns, lower the role of special interests, neutralize the incumbents’ advantage and prohibit contributions from non-citizens and all corporate sources.

Cut in Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: Highlights Education. His No. 1 priority, President Clinton called for national standards; a merit system for teachers; a literacy campaign; expansion of Head Start; more school choices for parents; federal help in repairing schools; and at least two years of college for all, subsidized by new tax breaks. Balanced budget. He will offer a plan to balance the budget while protecting Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment, making government work better and giving targeted middle-class tax relief. Amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget is unnecessary and could threaten the nation in a crisis, jeopardize Social Security and lead to higher taxes. Campaign overhaul. Congress should pass by July 4 a bill to reduce spending on election campaigns, lower the role of special interests, neutralize the incumbents’ advantage and prohibit contributions from non-citizens and all corporate sources.


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