Clinton Tries Some 'Old Democrat' Activism

In his marathon year-end news conference, President Clinton bridled when a reporter suggested that he was becoming a golf-playing "lame duck." Testily, he retorted that new State of the Union initiatives were in the works, that 1998 would be a vigorous year for him, and "we intend to have a very, very active time."

That may help to explain why, while Mr. Clinton was playing golf over the New Year weekend in the Virgin Islands, back at the White House his staff was churning out, in leaks and briefings, a blizzard of headline-catching new initiatives.

Medicare benefits for younger retirees ... tax credits to encourage small-business pensions ... a bipartisan push to stabilize Social Security with, maybe, a special session of Congress ... food stamps for legal immigrants ... reform of child care ... more money for biomedical research ... more money to expand the Peace Corps ... higher cigarette taxes to pay for social programs. The president saved for his return to Washington the announcement of a balanced budget.

What is it you were saying about an inactive, lame duck president? The programmatic proposals have something in common. The president who asserted, in his 1996 State of the Union address (to Republican applause), that "the era of big government is over," now seems willing to advocate a moderately expanded role for government.

Republicans are ready to proclaim that Mr. Clinton is adopting a less centrist - dare we say it - more liberal stance than the Clinton of yesteryear, who slashed spending and abolished "welfare as we know it."

It is as though the "new Democrat" Clinton decided, with three years left in office, to reapply for membership in the old Democratic Party - the party that worries about poor children, senior citizens, and immigrants.

The president may be looking to his legacy. Chances are that he is also looking to bolster the left flank of Vice President Al Gore in preparation for a primary fight against House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt. And who knows what other old Democrat challengers are lurking in the underbrush?

The State of the Union address is still more than two weeks away. But, thanks to the busy White House spinmeisters, we already know that the president is planning for a very active year.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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