His call for bipartisanship and a revival of community spirit sounded comforting. But beyond the warm and the fuzzy, Bill Clinton's Jan. 24 State of the Union address set the battle lines for ferocious ideological combat with the Republican-dominated Congress over how much to shrink the federal government.
Feisty GOP lawmakers think they have a mandate to slash and burn. That puts Clinton in a tough spot. He's trying to salvage an activist role for government at a time when he and Washington are disliked and distrusted. To pull it off--indeed, to save his Presidency--he has to convince Americans that his policy isn't just another can of Clinton Snake Oil.
CLUNKY. The President's enormous credibility problem masks a reasonable vision of government--one that falls between the extreme Democratic view that government can solve all problems and the far-Right credo that the feds cause all problems. The clunky name of his agenda, "New Covenant," lacks the clarity of the GOP's "Contract With America." But its message, buried in the painfully long address, is crisp: "We should rely on government as a partner to help us do more for ourselves."
This view of government as a friend rather than an overbearing parent was a major theme of Clinton's 1992 campaign, but he lost track of it until forced to counter the Republicans' siren song. Although the GOP call for smaller government and lower taxes may resonate at first, Clinton is betting that voters won't like the consequences.
Numerous polls bear him out. One conducted Jan. 4-8 for BUSINESS WEEK found that a majority oppose eliminating any specific government departments. Voters also like the idea of a balanced budget, but only if it means no cuts in Medicare or other favorite programs. And a Jan. 19-22 Los Angeles Times poll found that while voters lean toward the Republicans on ideological grounds, they balk at many of the party's specific proposals.
For instance, they oppose GOP efforts to repeal the ban on assault weapons and to scrap Clinton's national service program, which pays college tuition in return for volunteer work. They don't want the Republicans to delete money for crime-prevention programs. And they prefer Clinton's welfare reform plan over the GOP proposal to cut off benefits with no job guarantees.
But even if Clinton has a more popular approach--will anyone believe him? He didn't fulfill campaign pledges to enact middle-class tax relief, welfare reform, or campaign-finance reform when Democrats controlled Congress, so the public is wary of trusting him now. "He was right when he said the country is going through monumental changes, but is he the man to take us through them?" wonders Rutgers University political science professor Ross K. Baker.
GET CONCRETE. To reconnect with voters, Clinton must first quit the constant vacillation. He needs to take a consistent point of view and show the backbone to fight for his agenda. Secondly, he should reframe the debate on his terms. His Reinventing Government initiative may be worthy, but the GOP will always outbid him on cutting government. The President must also show in concrete ways how GOP cuts would savage families. There will be plenty of evidence.
Finally, the President has to really believe his own message. Is there any soul behind the shtick? If this is just another political reinvention, Clinton-style, he won't stand a chance against the Republican onslaught in Congress--or on the '96 battlefield.