Clinton Dons Rosy Reagan Mantle

His 'feel-good' State of the Union address lifts the curtain on '96 campaign theme

ONE by one, Republican presidential candidates have sought to wear the mantle of former President Reagan. Tonight, it is President Clinton's turn.

In a State of the Union address that will accentuate America's greatness, Mr. Clinton will aim his message over the heads of an adversarial Congress and appeal directly to Americans in their living rooms.

Reagan's theme in 1984 was ''America is Back,'' an upbeat State of the Union message that segued into the successful reelection theme of ''Morning Again in America.'' This year, Clinton will unofficially begin his campaign with the similarly feel-good vision of America entering the 21st century in an ''age of possibilities.''

''He needs to get his oar in the water first, before the Republicans, to decide what the debate line will be,'' says Bert Rockman, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh. ''He'll say, 'I'm the reasonable one, I'll balance the budget, but I won't compromise on the security of Americans' well-being.' ''

Clinton, to be sure, faces daunting immediate challenges. Some government agencies will run out money again on Friday without an agreement on funding, which at time of writing appeared elusive. So far, he has won the battle for public opinion in the budget wars that have already caused two partial government shutdowns; he does not want to squander that advantage, particularly as his wife fights charges that she and her aides obstructed justice in the Whitewater investigation.

The State of the Union address provides the perfect opportunity - the ultimate bully pulpit - to rise above the immediate fray and resharpen campaign skills that make Republicans tremble.

Expect a combination of good news about the nation's well-being - low unemployment, declining overall crime rates, and a strong posture abroad - and a sermonette on the challenges the nation faces, say Clinton aides and academics whom the president recently invited to the White House in preparation for tonight. Expect also a dose of communitarian exhortation, that all Americans must bear responsibility for their communities' well-being.

No beating up on GOP

''Some people thought he ought to make the case against the Republicans,'' says Robert Putnam, a Harvard University professor whose book on how Americans now bowl alone more than in leagues is a Clinton favorite. ''I strongly urged that he strike an upbeat tone.''

''None of us were dewy-eyed, though,'' adds Professor Putnam, who braved a blizzard to attend one of Clinton's two chat-fests. ''We talked about the growing inequality among Americans and about Americans' insecurity about jobs.''

But Putnam argues that an optimistic tone about America is realistic and that it is especially appropriate for the president in an election year.

Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor who is African-American, argued for optimism in talking about race relations. If achievements are emphasized, he said, that will inspire further progress.

Presidential spokesman Mike McCurry has been keeping the press well-stocked with advance information on what Clinton will say. He called the president ''realistic enough to understand that with a Republican Congress, a laundry list of [proposed] legislative items is not likely to attract much positive response from the legislators present.''

Still, Mr. McCurry outlined some areas the president will highlight, among them juvenile crime, children, and education. The budget, certainly, will be in the mix, but, he says, ''I don't think the president believes that the American people ... believe that the budget debate here in Washington is the defining issue of the day.''

Clinton can also be expected to position himself again as a man of the center, or the ''sensible center,'' searching for the ''common ground'' that unites Americans.

In his discussions with thinkers, Clinton also explored ways in which America can enhance its sense of civic involvement and develop partnerships between community groups and government. One of the prides of his administration - and a favorite target of conservatives - has been his national-service program, which helps young people pay for college in exchange for performing community work.

''A lot of folks there [at the White House meeting] expressed concern with how to get beyond this debate: old Democrats arguing for big government and Republicans arguing for deregulation and privatization,'' says Benjamin Barber, Walt Whitman professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of the book ''Jihad vs. McWorld.''

Reengaging citizens

''There's a third realm called civic society in which community groups - educational institutions, charities, foundations - take on some of the functions of the government,'' says Professor Barber. ''The question of how to reengage citizens is very much on the president's mind.''

Barber, who attended last year's pre-State of the Union session with Clinton, says he's seen a ''vast move forward in the president's thinking'' compared with last year. ''There's more clarity in what he's looking for.''

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