'Golden Age' Tests Bill Clinton's Mettle

In periods of prosperity, presidents often squander the chance to tackle big issues. Can Clinton seize the moment?

Bill Clinton now basks in a period of national prosperity enjoyed by only two or three American presidents in this century.

The country is at peace. Inflation is at a 32-year low. A healthy economy is producing a record number of jobs. Crime rates are at historic lows.

But with this golden age comes a set of unique challenges for the occupant of the Oval Office. As President Clinton spends long hours this week crafting his State of the Union address, scholars say that he faces a test of political character. He must consider how to seize this moment in history and address developing national problems that won't become critical until he has left office.

It is easier now, for example, to get a handle on the $5.7 trillion national debt and the eroding solvency of Medicare and Social Security than when baby boomers retire creating a surge in demand for these entitlements.

"This State of the Union will tell us who he really is," says Michael Genovese, a presidential scholar at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Mr. Clinton suggests that an aggressive agenda is in the offing to head off long-term concerns. But many historians and political analysts say his incremental approach to policy making and leadership is inadequate to stem the social and economic hardships to come.

Indeed, the president's policymaking machine has been running at full trickle in recent weeks. Critics say his bite-sized initiatives, ranging from moderate inmate drug-rehabilitation programs to the more substantial initiative aimed at subsidizing and improving child care, are not enough.

"He is squandering an amazing opportunity," says conservative columnist Charles Krauthhamer. "This golden era, which has miraculously produced this long expansion, gives us room to address the catastrophic retirement of the boomers."

Rich-poor gap widens

Other major fault lines may be developing as the US moves from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based one. The resulting disparity in job opportunities and wages has not created a golden age for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

"No one realizes how fast this economy is shifting," says public policy professor Ted Hershberg at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "On its face, things are going great. But there are real problems."

Next week Mr. Clinton delivers his State of the Union address, the last before next year's mid-term congressional elections, a point when the power of second-term presidents historically begins to fade. With no personal campaigns left for the master politician, Clinton has a rare window, analysts say. He is free to thwart the short-term, campaign-to-campaign planning cycles created by the American political system and prepare the nation for long-term problems - something past presidents in his position have failed to do.

Calvin Coolidge enjoyed the good times of the 1920s, and even campaigned on the lay-low slogan "Keep Cool with Cal." History has criticized him for being too pro-business, for ignoring the wide wage disparities of the day, and for encouraging the wild stock speculation that led to the market crash and Great Depression.

Similarly, Dwight Eisenhower was forced to react in the 1950s to racial crises, including the forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. But he failed to trade on his enormous personal popularity to address the simmering civil rights issues that boiled over into the racial unrest of the 1960s.

Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, is credited by many analysts for his focus during the relatively good times of the early 1960s, before Vietnam and social upheaval developed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his War on Poverty were considered bold attempts to meet emerging national problems.

The Clinton White House says that considered collectively its micro-initiatives constitute a comprehensive, national agenda. Aides point to the president's national discussion on race, which spokesman Mike McCurry claims is "picking up steam across the country." Moreover, the White House says it has addressed the underpinnings of many of the problems that lie ahead through its campaign for education standards and programs designed to make college affordable to more students.

Active times ahead?

While the president has hinted he'll take a more aggressive tack in the coming year to solve problems, including Social Security and Medicare, analysts say what he can do may be limited. To craft any agenda, they say, a modern president has to stay closer to public opinion while offering innovative, and less costly, solutions.

"If you look at the road blocks he has to face - a conservative Congress, people cynical about government ... - he becomes ineffective if he's too far in front [of public opinion]," says Mr. Genovese. "Presidencies are shaped as much by opportunity as intent."

The question for historians is how Clinton will be regarded for his efforts to thwart the problems that will fully emerge after he leaves office.

"What is not being done is massive. What is being done is useful and incremental," says presidential historian James MacGregor Burns of Williams College in Williamston, Mass.

"And it all may add up to a fair amount of progress, in areas such as child care. But in the end, it will be sadly inadequate in my view."

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