Clinton's eloquence put to test
Tuesday's State of the Union may help him bolster standing - butalso poses risks.
WASHINGTON — Bill Clinton gives a great speech. Even his detractors say he's one of the best presidential communicators ever. But when he stands before Congress and the nation next Tuesday to deliver his State of the Union address, he will need all his rhetorical skills. His challenge is daunting: to show Americans, as well as the Senate jurors of his impeachment trial, that the country is better off with him than without him. To that end, the White House has already previewed a half dozen initiatives that will be included in the speech - many expected (some would say calculated) to win bipartisan support. President Clinton is also expected to use the prime-time address to bolster his standing with the American people, something he's done successfully in the past. Last year's State of the Union is a case in point. The nation's chief executive amazed pundits with a 10-point bounce in approval ratings after an address that mentioned not one word about the Monica Lewinsky scandal - even though the steamy allegations were erupting all around him. Many expect him to be up to the task this time as well. "He is up there with Ronald Reagan [in his ability to communicate with the public], and he will get another 10-point bounce," predicts John Zogby, an independent pollster. It was Mr. Reagan, of course, who made the State of the Union speech what it is today. The "great communicator" of the 1980s revived this mind-numbing, boilerplate address to one resonating with humanity and relevance. Now, after six years of standing before Congress and addressing the American people, Mr. Clinton has got this event down to a science - preparing better, previewing better, and performing better than most of his predecessors, say political observers. If past is prologue, Clinton will offer no major proposals - a hallmark of the annual addresses of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Nor is he likely to delve with much depth into the impeachment issue - if at all. A Lewinsky reference, or no? Some experts say the president may have to finesse a reference to the Lewinsky matter into the address. After all, it has become a highly charged political issue. But others think Clinton shouldn't touch it. Surely this president, an avid observer of Oval Office history, has learned from Richard Nixon's 1974 State of the Union, which was "poorly delivered" and "talking to the wrong audience," according to Paul Light of the Brookings Institution. Nixon finished that speech, in which he repeatedly pulled out his white handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his lip, with a lengthy appeal to Congress to end the year-long Watergate investigation. The strategy failed, as did his proposal of a sweeping new health-care policy - offered as a temptation for Democrats if they would only allow him to stay in office. Rather, this president, who "loves" talking to Americans through this speech, will stick to an approach that is by now tried and true, poll-tested, and bears the Clinton mark: The rollout. Last year, the White House took advantage of the January news dearth by offering sneak previews of the State of the Union and the 1999 fiscal budget. The number of leaks about the address were unsurpassed in presidential history. This year, the tradition is being continued with previews on a daily basis, though they've had to compete with the impeachment story. By the time the address is actually delivered, "there will not be many surprises," says Ann Lewis, White House communications director. The bite-size agenda. The president will talk about big policy areas like Social Security but, say analysts, his proposals will be middling to small. Clinton, they say, has learned that neither Congress nor Americans have an appetite for big government interventions - such as his health-care proposal offered at the start of his administration. While his Democratic predecessors unveiled a "new deal" and major programs to fight poverty or civil rights abuses, Clinton is focusing on fixing what everyone else has done. The center course. Former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta remembers one State of the Union when he sat behind then Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York. As Clinton ticked off item after item on his Republican-sounding agenda, Mr. Panetta says he overheard the senator exclaim: "The guy's giving our speech!" This year the president will propose tax breaks for millions of Americans who need long-term health care - an idea that, when previewed last week, received a warm Republican reception. The performance. In the end, says pollster Zogby, the State of the Union "boils down to performance." Clinton, say analysts, is a master of this difficult genre, which has forced other presidents to succumb to the tedious and boring. Like Reagan, Clinton relies heavily on the human element, pointing out American "heroes" in the audience (a practice that began with Reagan) and drawing on anecdotes, sometimes from his own past. Last year for instance, when he introduced his child-care program (which went nowhere), he harked back to his childhood, wondering how his mother could have gotten by as a young widow without his grandparents there to help care for him. "Bill Clinton, taken as a whole, has probably given greater States of the Union than any president in 20th-century history," says Martin Medhurst, a professor and expert in presidential rhetoric at Texas A&M's Bush School of Government. As if to legitimize his praise, he adds, "I'm not a Clinton fan." How the address evolved Still, performance is not exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind, reminds Mr. Panetta, who regrets the devolution of the annual presidential address. The Constitution says nothing about a yearly appearance of the president before Congress, stating only that "from time to time" the president give lawmakers "information of the state of the Union." Many early presidents sent their messages in writing, and it was Woodrow Wilson who took to the floor of the House to demonstrate that the president "is a person ... trying to cooperate with other human beings in a common service." President Johnson, meanwhile, recognized the address's potential to speak over the heads of lawmakers to millions of Americans, and switched the speech to evening hours when more people would be home to watch. As Clinton delivers his speech Tuesday, he will be refining the Johnson tradition, aiming his remarks at millions of Americans, reminding them that their country is at an economic pinnacle, though much still needs to be done as America turns toward a new millennium. It will show the president is still at work on the people's business, an activity that, he hopes, Congress can't blame him for.