Clinton, Eye to Eye With GOP, Tries to Renew Presidency

In State of the Union address tonight, president will try to regain initiative with centrist themes

IN his last State-of-the-Union address a year ago, President Clinton waved a pen in the air and dramatically vowed to veto any health-care bill that fell short of universal coverage.

He never got the chance, of course, and such grand ambitions in the White House are only a dim memory now.

Tonight, Mr. Clinton will peer past the teleprompter at a very different - mostly Republican - Congress with ambitions all its own.

The only speech required by the Constitution, the State-of-the-Union address is where presidents typically set a tone and lay out their priorities for the coming year.

Clinton's direction has never been such an open question as it is leading into his speech tonight. In recent weeks, he has sought the counsel of a wide range of practical philosophers from Stephen Covey, author of ``Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,'' to historians and thinkers on the state of civic life in America.

He seems to be casting about on basic questions of how to move forward in the radically remade political environment he will face in the room before him Tuesday.

He has given indications of moving to the right in response to the rightward tilt of the last election, especially by reviving his middle-class tax-cut proposal, but he has also warned against GOP excesses on matters such as cutting welfare.

Even more unclear is the relationship he will establish with the Democratic minority in Congress. Clinton and the Democrats in the audience tonight are in an ambivalent embrace. ``In a way, he's speaking as much to Congressional Democrats as to anyone else in the country,'' says Sam Kernell, a presidential scholar at the University of California, San Diego.

If Clinton moves too far to the right, he will be moving further away from many of the party's constituents. But moving to the right may help his reelection prospects against a Republican opponent in two years.

Based on recent speeches and other reports, Clinton is likely to tout his New Democratic, that is his conservative, side tonight. That includes his ``Middle Class Bill of Rights,'' the tax credits for families with children, for college tuition, and for retirement saving that he announced last month. It may also include escalating spending on the Border Patrol to assert more control over immigration.

On the other hand, that is, on the liberal side, he is considering an increase in the minimum wage, a move generally opposed by business and Republicans.

Whatever Clinton's message tonight, he can be expected to deliver it well. Whenever he makes a prime-time televised address to the nation, his audience responds well and his approval rating spikes upward in opinion surveys.

More than the speeches of George Bush or the later ones of Ronald Reagan, notes Dr. Kernell, Clinton's speeches so far ``always get a favorable response.'' And unlike the later speeches of Jimmy Carter, Clinton has not worn out his welcome with the public, he adds, so tonight's address offers a president who has lost control of the political agenda, an opportunity not to lose it totally.

``No president in my thinking lifetime can deliver a better television speech than Bill Clinton, and that includes Ronald Reagan,'' says Everett Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. ``Yet,'' says Ladd, ``it's hard to believe him, to take him seriously.''

``Bill Clinton's good when he gives a speech, but he doesn't understand the rhetorical presidency,'' says Theodore Otto Windt Jr., a University of Pittsburgh political scientist and expert on presidential rhetoric.

Clinton needs to define himself and seize control of the political direction of the country, says Dr. Windt, but he cannot do it with one good speech. Presidents get their messages through to the public by repeating them endlessly and consistently.

Richard Nixon gave 37 televised speeches in five and a half years as president. Clinton has only delivered a handful in two years. Ronald Reagan also was a heavy user of television speeches, which he used to incessantly reinforce his message. Clinton, says Windt, ``doesn't pound home his message enough.''

Clinton was mentioned in an average of eight network television news stories a night over his first year and half in office, far more than George Bush four years earlier, according the Center for Media and Public Affairs. But the Bush stories were far more directed by presidential action, says political studies director Richard Noyes, while many of the Clinton stories were about a presidency in crisis, or ``off message,'' in political jargon.

How Clinton performs tonight before a large TV audience may affect his poll ratings in the next few days, but has little lasting importance. Only rare State-of-the-Union speeches make a lasting impression, such as Lyndon Johnson's 1964 speech in which he declared war on poverty.

The most important audience tonight will be the one in the room with Clinton. Thomas Jefferson opted to deliver his annual address to Congress as a letter. Not until Woodrow Wilson did a President again march down to Capitol Hill to make a speech. It was Johnson who made the State of the Union a prime-time event.

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