A Bold Process Begins

PRESIDENT Clinton has unrolled his economic blueprint for the nation, initiating a vetting process and identifying budget objectives that deserve attention and support.

The initial responses to his approach to cutting the deficit to just above $200 billion by fiscal 1997 (it is projected to hit up to $327 billion by Sept. 30) have been positive. Abroad, the dollar began to strengthen against major currencies yesterday. At home, Wall Street started to shed its pre-speech jitters as the Dow Jones industrial average moved higher in early trading. Two snap surveys - one by the Gallup Organization for CNN and USA Today, the other an ABC-Washington Post survey - suggested tha t on a first hearing, roughly three-quarters of the public back Mr. Clinton's proposals.

It remains to be seen whether that support grows more out of the long list of domestic-spending proposals that brought members of Congress to their feet. Those polling numbers will be hard to sustain as elements of the package get closer scrutiny for their impact on jobs and regions.

As Clinton and his aides tour the country promoting the plan, they will need to fill gaps in Wednesday night's speech. The president went into more detail on tax increases than on spending cuts - understandable given the publicity that the tax trial balloons received during the run-up to his speech. But he needs to give a clearer account of where the cuts will be made, and what the tradeoffs are, so that support won't turn into cynicism.

Two areas for budget savings, for example, are administrative efficiencies and streamlining government: Both sound like echoes of nebulous proposals of the past to save money by cutting unspecified "waste, fraud, and abuse."

To his credit, Clinton is working to keep the debate over his package centered on its substance by using a set of fairly conservative economic assumptions from the Congressional Budget Office.

In the past, debates over White House assumptions have consumed almost as much rhetorical energy as have discussions of the merits of budget proposals themselves. By signing off on the CBO's numbers, Clinton is trying to avoid that trap.

With echoes of Kennedy ("the test of this plan cannot be what is in it for me; it has got to be what is in it for us") and appeals to Perot supporters (campaign-finance reform, shared sacrifice, and a willingness to reevaluate longstanding government programs) Clinton has set forth on a bold process that at its best should force the United States finally to come to grips with economic problems that have languished for too long.

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