Clinton's Agenda Resounds With State and Local Themes

White House offers Americans bite-size policies on education, crime

Meet Bill Clinton - the super-governor of the United States.

As he defines his agenda in this critical early week of his second term, the occupant of the White House is sounding a lot like someone who's nostalgic for his old days in the Arkansas statehouse.

For one thing, he's emphasizing themes that resonate with governors, such as expansion of educational opportunities and the fight against juvenile crime.

For another, he's engaging in a kind of personal politics that may sound unusual coming from America's top elected official. He's freely dispensing admonitions about daily life, such as his call in Tuesday's State of the Union speech for parents to read to their children, and for young people to consider entering the teaching field.

These bite-size, statehouse-like proposals may be a far cry from the sweeping federal initiatives that President Clinton proposed when he first took office. Remember health-care reform?

But they represent the level of government action and rhetoric that Clinton officials are now convinced Americans really want.

They also represent a calculation that the president can seize the center of US politics, and portray opposition to many of his policies as petty partisanship.

"The people of this nation elected us all," Mr. Clinton told Congress on Tuesday night. "They want us to be partners, not partisans. They put us all right here in the same boat. They gave us all oars, and they told us to row."

This doesn't mean that Clinton is now abstaining from grandiose touches. The midwinter period when a president delivers the State of the Union speech and then releases his budget is one of the rare times when a chief executive can count on controlling Washington's agenda and commanding its full attention. Only a modest politician (something that is probably a contradiction in terms) would be able to refrain from setting his quote machine to "sweeping."

Thus Clinton in his State of the Union invoked a favorite presidential invocation: the need for a moral equivalent of war. The adversary in question is no longer the energy crisis, as it was during Jimmy Carter's day. Instead, the enemy of our time is "inaction," according to the president.

"We must be shapers of events, not observers, for if we do not act, the moment will pass and we will lose the best possibilities of our future," said Clinton, sweepingly.

But so far details of the White House second-term agenda have been something of an acknowledgment that in today's world a president must have only modest ambitions - as governors often must, due to their limited powers and budgets.

Lack of money for big New Deal-like programs is only one of the constraints on the Clinton White House. His other - and obvious - main problem is the Republican-controlled Congress.

At times this week, though, Clinton has sounded as if he might fit right in with the GOP caucus.

"He talks like a Republican when he says he's for a balanced budget," noted Sen. Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri in the wake of the State of the Union.

The White House budget proposal, to be issued today, will call for a balanced budget by 2002. That represents a big shift rightward from 1992, when more traditional Democratic initiatives such as a $30 billion stimulus package were Clinton's priorities.

The budget will contain numerous other examples of the president's lowered sights. It proposes expanding the popular Head Start program to 1 million children, for instance - as opposed to Clinton's old position that all eligible US kids should participate in the program. Clinton also wants to expand Medicaid coverage to about 5 million uninsured children - something short of the government health care for all children that many liberals want.

The one area where the president promises to focus time, energy, and money is education. But even this emphasis, under Clinton's proposals, is something less than an all-out federal assault on a national problem.

Instead, he wants Washington to function as a definer and a catalyst, while leaving primary responsibility for education at the state and local levels.

Thus, the federal government would design national reading and math tests that states would implement - or not, as they prefer. Washington would certify 100,000 "master teachers," based on national standards for excellence, and enlist 1 million volunteer tutors to help ensure that US kids can all read by the third grade.

US government spending on education would expand 40 percent, under Clinton's plan. But even at that level it would be a relative drop in the bucket compared to local and state budgets for education. The statehouse-like nature of an emphasis on education was exemplified by one quick reference in the State of the Union - Clinton mentioned that he had been "obsessed" with schools since he himself was a governor.

Not everyone in Washington thinks Clinton's expectations are now reduced. Some Republicans, for example, thought that the president whipped through his call for a balanced budget a little too fast, without discussion of the painful cuts needed to make it a reality.

Clinton called for "a lot of government for someone who said just a year ago that the era of big government is over," said Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico.

Maybe so. Call it the era of mid-size government. This week, with the beginning of the annual budget process, will begin to show what kind of partisan wrangling, if any, Clinton's modest vision will spark.

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