Clinton projects a 'split-screen' presidency
His State of Union speech tonight will be chockablock withinitiatives. But it won't change calculus in Senate.
WASHINGTON — It may be the ultimate example of Bill Clinton's "split-screen" presidency, in which the chief executive is about the nation's business on one hand, while impeachment rages on the other.
Tonight, when Mr. Clinton delivers his annual State of the Union address, only a few hours will have elapsed since his attorneys were scheduled to finish their first day defending him in his historic impeachment trial.
A few hours - a thin line dividing the highly unusual from business-as-usual in the Clinton White House. It's the workaday image, however, that the president has tried to project since the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke a year ago.
At that time, he finished his finger-wagging denial by stating he needed to "go back to work for the American people." Ever since, at even the most critical points in the scandal, he has been pointedly occupied with a nonimpeachment agenda.
Remember that unprecedented day last September when Americans were shown four hours of uninterrupted, unedited grand-jury testimony?
Clinton was in New York, addressing the United Nations on the need for a global strategy to fight terrorism. He received a standing ovation.
Or what about the day in November when independent counsel Kenneth Starr appeared before the House Judiciary Committee? The president was in Tokyo, pressuring the Japanese to speed up economic reforms.
And there's the day two weeks ago when Chief Justice William Rehnquist opened an impeachment trial - the first in 131 years. Was the president watching?
No, he was having his weekly lunch with Vice President Al Gore, followed by an after-school-care event under the crystal chandeliers of the East Room. The plan to increase spending on after-school programs will be featured in tonight's address.
Let the lawyers be lawyers
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart says the president is largely leaving his defense to his lawyers and other staff.
"I'm not trying to create the impression that he is uninvolved," the press secretary said earlier this month. "But a good client allows his lawyers to do their work."
Whether this business-as-usual strategy is working to Clinton's advantage is hard to say. Certainly, he's maintained gravity-defying job-approval ratings that would be the envy of any second-term president.
But the polls made no impression on House Republican lawmakers, who impeached him anyway.
It's not yet clear whether his Senate jurors will be any more impressed, though theoretically they're more likely to consider opinion trends than are their colleagues in the House, who are more tightly bound to ideologically defined congressional districts.
Either way, the new initiatives are not likely to dilute the stain on his legacy, even many of his supporters acknowledge. "He's going to have a very difficult time turning the impeachment headline into a footnote," says former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta.
Yet short of resigning - which Clinton insists he won't do - what choice does he have other than to keep on going?
"If he sat around the White House, full of lament, it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy," says presidential historian Robert Dallek, one of about a dozen outsiders asked by the White House to submit ideas for the president's address tonight.
At least by persistently pushing his agenda, says Mr. Dallek, the president has a chance to still accomplish something.
Trying to fill a vacuum
Observers point out that by sticking to his event-a-day rollout of his program and budget, the president fills an issues vacuum left by impeachment-bent Republicans. Eventually, this kind of pressure could force Republicans into working with him.
Right now, Republicans are "frustrated" with the president's ability to compartmentalize impeachment and "ignore the elephant sitting in the room," says Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation.
But Mr. Wittmann describes a "pent-up energy" building among Republicans to achieve some legislative gains. "There's clearly a desire among a lot of Republicans to get some legislative accomplishments, which will invariably mean that they have to sit down with the White House at some point," he says.
Many of the plans proposed in tonight's address, but outlined in previous days, are designed specifically to meet GOP support. "We look for issues in which we can achieve bipartisan support," says White House communications director Ann Lewis. "We want them enacted."
Beefing up the defense budget, tax credits for long-term health care, reforming Social Security (perhaps by using some of the budget surplus for individual retirement accounts) - all are items that Republicans can potentially accept, analysts say.
Of course, it hasn't been easy to keep the president's agenda moving in a year shaken by the scandal earthquake.
While only about 5 percent of the White House is handling impeachment matters, top aides still can't get away from it.
"You don't really know what you can do till you have to," says the White House's Lewis, reviewing the past year. "Ultimately, you have to put your confidence in the American people, and just do your job on their behalf.... They will know it, and they will respond."