BOSTON — One year ago, when he delivered his annual address to Congress, Bill Clinton was reaching the apex of his attempt to reinvent his presidency. In the shadow of government shutdowns, he seized the "vital center" of the political spectrum.
His speech was a campaign blueprint. His audience was a nation of voters beyond the House.
When he steps into the well tonight to deliver his State of the Union address, President Clinton faces a vastly different test - not of voters but of history.
Freed from electoral politics, and floating on the highest public-approval ratings of his presidency, Clinton has a window of opportunity to reassert himself into an agenda framed by Republicans.
His target audience tonight will be those in the room - the legislators he must rally, not bully, behind him.
"This is a benchmark event," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., "For members of Congress, it will be a tactical message. But the subtext of everything Clinton does will be to provide interpretive materials for historians to evaluate his presidency."
The State of the Union address is the one report to Congress required of the president by the Constitution. It isn't the best venue for making history. The last address to lodge itself in the nation's long-term memory was given 33 years ago, when President Johnson outlined his war on poverty.
Burden of anticipation
But coming just two weeks after an inaugural address many historians found forgettable, Clinton's speech tonight carries a burden of anticipation.
Expect the president to take a few moments to bask in the glow of the third-longest postwar economic expansion and an inflation rate that clings to a 30-year low.
In outlining his legislative agenda and budget, Clinton is expected to call upon Congress to complete the "unfinished business" of balancing the budget and finding jobs for welfare recipients. He will stress new education initiatives, such as requiring schools to test whether students meet national standards, and health-care measures to cover the estimated 10 million children who are now unprotected.
There are several points on which Clinton is expected to draw on presidential prowess to gain leverage against Congress. One is campaign finance reform. Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi has said he will not schedule a bipartisan bill for debate, giving Clinton the opportunity to take the lead on an issue the public ranks high among its concerns.
That lead may be important. Congress is poised to probe allegations that the White House sold access for contributions during last year's election. By calling for reforms by July 4, the president may swing support from voters more interested in action than partisan investigation.
Another issue is tax cuts. Clinton will propose $98 billion in tax relief targeted to specific social ends, such as spurring more people to go to college or more businesses to hire welfare recipients. Republicans want almost twice that amount, and most of their cuts are untargeted.
First pots on stove?
Not much of this is new. Clinton proposed a lot of these measures in key speeches throughout the campaign. But how he presents his agenda tonight may well determine the dynamics between the White House and Congress in Clinton's second term of office, and who the public perceives setting the agenda.
"The question is, Does he play with the agenda that is out there or add his own flavor?" asks Bruce Oppenheimer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "He has to put his pots on the stove early, so that if things move in the right direction, he can take advantage of an opportunity."
Continuing the tone used to open his second term two weeks ago, Clinton is likely to stress bipartisanship. It's questionable how long the current comity in Washington will last. But in an unusual move, Senator Lott has invited Clinton to coffee on Capitol Hill Wednesday, the day between his address and submission of his budget. The White House is mulling the offer. And on one issue, Medicare, the two sides are remarkably close, given that it was the subject of the most fierce partisan fighting a year ago.
Great presidents, it is said, are forged by the challenges of their times. In that sense, Clinton at the outset of his second term may lack an obvious vehicle for future accolades. The agenda is overwhelmingly domestic, a domain that Congress has largely claimed in the modern era. To what extent Clinton capitalizes on his reelection and shepherds the agenda toward his own objectives, may be clear after tonight.
"He has a window of opportunity - 11 months - and then we're into another campaign year," says Theodore Otto Windt Jr., a presidential scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. "He doesn't have the upper hand on domestic issues, and he may not be able to gain it. But this is his opportunity with the legislature."