Nation Will Watch Intensely As Dramas Play Out

TUESDAY, JAN. 27, 1998

Three dramas will unfold at once tonight when President Clinton enters the packed, tense chamber of the House of Representatives to deliver his annual State of the Union address.

The most riveting drama will be the human one. Bill Clinton is caught in the spotlight of suspicion in the worst crisis of his life, and everyone will be watching. How will he perform? How pouchy will the circles under his eyes be? Will Hillary show strain? Will the cameras catch her in an unintentionally revealing moment?

Less obvious but more consequential will be the political drama. Will Republicans display contempt or careful civility? Will Democrats rally behind their leader or maintain a cautious distance? Their fate is tied to his, for good or ill, as they are well aware in this congressional election year.

The last is the least obvious drama of all - that of democratic government - and it is here that Clinton hopes to star most powerfully. He intends to appeal to the American people not as a flawed man, but rather as their caring, competent president, the leader who, whatever his morals might be, commands respect for doing a good job.

Most Americans still approve of Clinton’s job performance despite the scandal, although their respect for him as a man has fallen, according to several weekend polls.

That’s understandable. Clinton the man is in a personal crisis of morality and legality stemming from allegations of a sex scandal with 24-year-old former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. But Clinton the president is in charge of a country that’s in its best shape in at least 30 years; many people say they are prepared to overlook his character flaws if he just will keep steering the ship of state straight.

Clinton plans to appear as presidential as possible. As of Monday, he intended to avoid even mentioning the scandal in his speech.

The president will trumpet many favorite themes in his speech. He will hail the virtues of fiscal discipline and the balanced budget. He will call for applying any budget surpluses that might emerge to paying down the national debt. That will strengthen the Social Security system and help secure pensions for the baby boom generation, Clinton will contend.

He will paint his programs in historic terms, aimed at easing the nation’s transition from the Industrial Age into the Global Economy. That’s how he frames his calls to boost education; they give people tools to succeed in the new era. Similarly, he proposes to provide more child care to help working parents cope with conflicting job and family pressures.

There will be much more, of course. The speech is planned to last an hour, and Clinton often digresses. Expect an appeal to support the International Monetary Fund, a warning to Iraq and a plea for racial reconciliation.

Tags: politics

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