President Clinton presented Tuesday night a glowing review of a nation at once prospering and secure because of his policies, drawing frequent applause as he ignored his personal problems and plunged into a spirited recitation of his agenda for the balance of his second term.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the state of the union is strong,” Clinton said, drawing a standing ovation from a cordial but noticeably restrained Congress. “We have a smaller government, but a stronger nation.”
In a 75-minute State of the Union address, Clinton was interrupted by applause 104 times - a vast relief to a White House team that had anguished about giving a nationally televised speech in the wake of the adultery and obstruction-of-justice allegations that engulfed Clinton last week.
Despite the tumultuous events leading up to the speech, it became clear within moments of Clinton striding into the House chamber that the evening would proceed normally. Clinton struck a mostly bipartisan tone - though there were a few notable exceptions when Democrats cheered while Republicans sat stonily.
In rapid-fire fashion, Clinton ticked off a variety of proposals that cumulatively amount to the most expansive agenda since the GOP majority captured Capitol Hill three years ago.
“With barely 700 days left in the 20th century, this is not a time to rest,” Clinton said. “It is a time to build - to build an America within reach, … an America which leads the world to new heights of peace and prosperity.”
The first item Clinton mentioned on his domestic proposal also was the most dramatic. Noting that a strong economy is likely to produce budget surpluses by next year, Clinton put Congress on notice that he is not ready to consider tax cuts or unfunded spending programs.
“What should we do with this projected surplus?” Clinton asked. “I have a simple four-word answer: ‘Save Social Security first.”’
Delivering the Republican response, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., predicted that the battle over tax cuts and the intrusiveness of government would dominate the 1998 agenda, an election year in which partisan control of the House is expected to be closely contested.
“Big government or families?” Lott asked. “More taxes or more freedom?”
Nearly all of Clinton’s 1998 agenda had been rolled out in the days and weeks prior to the speech, either in presidential appearances or in news media leaks. Even so, it was Clinton’s first chance to explain it to a national audience.
The budget he will release next week, he promised, will include more money to help local schools hire teachers and reduce early-grade class sizes, as well as to modernize and build new facilities. There are increased tax credits to help lower- and middle-income parents with child-care expenses.
Clinton also appealed for an increase in the minimum wage, though he did not endorse a precise amount by which the current $5.15 per hour wage should be raised. “Because these times are good, we can afford to take one simple, sensible step to help millions of workers struggling to provide for their families,” the president said.
In contrast to a generally sunny assessment of the nation’s domestic health, Clinton had dire words about two overseas crises: in Iraq, where administration officials have warned that a military strike could come within two weeks; and in Pacific Rim nations suffering steep downward slides in their economies.
Clinton said Iraq must stop thwarting U.N. inspectors searching for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs, at one point addressing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein directly: “You cannot defy the will of the world. You have used weapons of mass destruction before. We are determined to deny you the capacity to use them again.”
Clinton said he is hoping for a bipartisan solution to one issue that is certain to dominate this year’s congressional agenda: whether to enact a comprehensive settlement with the tobacco industry.
Clinton said a settlement - in which cigarette makers would receive some immunity from lawsuits in exchange for a multibillion-dollar payment and various restrictions on the industry - would “help parents protect their children from the gravest health threat they face: an epidemic of teen smoking, spread by multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns.”
As he has announced previously, Clinton endorsed using a combination of taxes and sanctions on the industry to raise the price of cigarettes by a $1.50 a pack in the next 10 years.
Clinton is counting on passage of a tobacco settlement - which most independent observers consider a highly questionable prospect - to raise some $65 billion in new money for the government in the next five years, budget officials said. He is counting on much of this money to pay for new domestic initiatives.
Clinton faces a precarious political balance this year. Aides say he is eager to repair his sometimes fractious relationships with House Democrats and advance an agenda that will help them draw clear partisan lines in the debate with Republicans. One of these items is a plan to expand the Medicare health-care program to allow people as young as 55 buy into the program early. Some Republicans laughed at Clinton’s assertion that doing this would not cost the government a dime.
Both sides of the aisle cheered when Clinton presented a so-called Consumer Bill of Rights for the health care system. The bill would impose new rules on managed-care plans, requiring that they let patients know more about treatment options, regardless of cost.
“Medical decisions should be made by medical doctors, not insurance company accountants,” Clinton said.
Graphic: State of the Union
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Also today The full text of President Clinton’s State of the Union address is available today on The Spokesman-Review’s Web site, Virtually Northwest. Find it at www.virtuallynw.com.