Armed with a “fat little notebook” of ideas, President Clinton headed into 1998 girding for fresh battles with Congress on issues old and new, from campaign finance reform and trade to saving Social Security and healing race relations.
“I’ve got a ton of stuff I want to read,” Clinton said, looking ahead to his Jan. 27 State of the Union address, which he will use to set the tone for what is being framed as a decisive year.
It could also be debilitating. Later this month, evidence gathering ends in Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton, propelling the case to its May trial date. With his legal defense fund newly shut down, the president also is navigating the tricky question of whether to solicit help with his $3 million in legal bills.
Charges of sexual misconduct aside, it is his political reputation Clinton wants to protect. The president’s appetite for history books is as voracious as his desire to be well-remembered in them.
In feverish fund raising last year for the Democratic party, Clinton cast November’s midterm elections as a referendum on his own success in five years at the nation’s helm. He claimed credit for giving Democrats new bragging rights on deficit reduction, economic prosperity, and law and order.
He vowed an all-out effort to elect a Democratic majority to the GOP-controlled Congress, but it doesn’t appear that he’ll give Democratic candidates much new to work with.
Clinton headed out on his six-day vacation, dominated by golf and gab, without a draft of his State of the Union speech, aides said - and with just a “fat little notebook” of memos from White House staff and outside advisers with suggestions on themes and phrasing.
After 2-1/2 days on Hilton Head Island, S.C., Clinton and his family moved their holiday Thursday to St. Thomas, where they plan to stay until Sunday. They are staying at the Sand Dollar, a private villa on the Caribbean island’s Peterborg Peninsula.
The president and his economic team have prepared a stay-the-course blueprint for the next budget year. Disregarding Republican clamor for major tax reforms, Clinton will propose limited tax breaks on pet items including pollution control and child care. Aides say he will ask for more spending on education, food safety, AIDS treatment and other programs that he also tried to bolster last year.
A health care “bill of rights” for Health Maintenance Organization members that Clinton unveiled last year to Republican opposition will also be back.
One new but politically explosive issue Clinton says he will tackle: entitlement reform. An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Clinton would likely ask congressional Republicans for a bipartisan commission to make the tough calls on saving Social Security from bankruptcy.
“First and foremost, we want to make sure the economy keeps going strong and that we maintain the fiscal discipline that got us where we are,” said John Podesta, White House deputy chief of staff.
“You will also see an emphasis on investing in people as they head into the millennium - help balancing work and family, education, child care, quality health care for all Americans.”
His domestic agenda will be cramped, however, by an aggressive overseas travel schedule, including missions to India, Pakistan, England, Chile, Russia, China and South Africa.
Clinton will also tackle cleanup of the messes once intended to be his legacy for 1997:
Expanded international trade. Clinton started too late in his fight with Congress to gain “fast-track” authority to negotiate trade deals and had to concede failure. He’ll try again this year.
Campaign finance reform. In his 1997 State of the Union, he vowed reforms by July 4. But, in the embarrassment of probes into his own campaign finance tactics, Clinton didn’t fight too hard to get Congress to follow suit. The GOP majority belatedly committed to vote on the issue this spring.
Race. The president’s much-ballyhooed initiative to spur a healing national dialogue on race relations meandered aimlessly. This year, Clinton will try to add substance by proposing policy.
Education standards. Republicans killed what was to have been Clinton’s signature issue for 1997 - national standards and testing in grade-school reading and math.
Looking abroad, Clinton must convince the Senate this year to ratify the NATO-expansion treaty he signed in 1997, admitting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to the Western alliance at significant cost to the U.S. defense budget.
He will also need congressional approval to keep U.S. troops in Bosnia as part of an extended, NATO-led peacekeeping operation.
In his final 1997 news conference, Clinton said 1998 would see “vigorous action on vital issues.”
“From education to the environment, from health care to child care, from expanding trade to improving skills, from fighting new security threats to promoting peace, we have much to do both here at home and abroad,” he said.