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And Now, The State Of Bill Clinton Speech

News: Analysis & Commentary: The White House


The worst-kept secret in Washington is that Bill Clinton is engaged in a massive bout of soul-searching. In recent weeks, he has huddled with politicos, motivational gurus, and policy wonks. All this thrashing underscores an urgent concern: How can a President who led his party to its worst drubbing in 40 years and has since been overshadowed by GOP quote machines such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich reassert control of the public dialogue?

The answer will come on Jan. 24, when the President delivers his State of the Union address. He hopes to use this forum to claw back into the game with a three-pronged strategy: pushing popular programs under his Middle-Class Bill of Rights, attacking Republicans as extremists, and addressing Americans' moral yearning by speaking on values and the need for greater community.

GOOD NEWS. Although critics may deride Clinton's fitness to lead a moral crusade, there's no question about his devotion to populism. In the 1992 race, he tapped into middle-class jitters about the global economy, and he's prepared to renew the theme in his bid for reelection. "He's returning to his roots," says a White House adviser. Apparently, the new tack is helping. According to a Jan. 11-12 Time-CNN poll, 49% of the public approves of the job Clinton is doing, up from 41% in early December.

That's good news for the White House. For weeks, Presidential advisers have debated whether their man should move left, toward his base, or jump right. Instead, they came up with a synthesis that promotes "web issues," such as job training and crime fighting. A Clinton adviser describes these as "issues that stitch folks back together again" by appealing to core Democratic constituencies and suburban independents.

One key web theme is education. The issue has scored well in polls, persuading Clinton to propose a tax break of up to $10,000 a year to help middle-class parents pay for college. Another web idea is the Clintonites' call to streamline government, which they hope will appeal more to voters than the GOP's proposals for shock treatment. After the State of the Union, Clinton plans to hit the hustings to hawk his latest Reinventing Government ideas, among them a scheme to shrink the Interior Dept.

Clinton also will resurrect his campaign theme of a New Covenant government that provides opportunities in return for responsibility. In this vein, welfare mothers will receive aid if they work, and workers can get grants if they improve their job skills.

TAKING COURAGE. Another tactical shift: Clinton mainly has sought common ground with Republicans since the elections, but lately he has started to carefully pick fights. On Jan. 16, he lashed out at Gingrich for vowing to end a pet Clinton program: AmeriCorps, which gives college loans to students who do community work. Aides also plan increasingly to attack Republicans on issues such as repeal of the assault weapons ban while painting them as heartless Grinches who aim to throw welfare kids onto park benches. Meanwhile, they're hoping for more GOP pratfalls, such as Gingrich's stumble over his $4.5 million book contract. "The more he's discredited, the more his agenda suffers," says a gleeful White House aide.

Of course, that's a problem for Clinton as well. Republicans plan to make plenty more hay over the Whitewater scandal and Paula Jones's harassment allegations. Nor can Clinton depend on Republicans slipping on every banana peel. Moreover, he undermines his political standing with chronic vacillation. But having Newt in his face may be just what it takes for Clinton to finally learn how to stick to the script.By Susan B. Garland, with Douglas Harbrecht, in Washington

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