U.S. President Bill Clinton has done it again. Last year, against the backdrop of revelations of his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Mr. Clinton presented a State of the Union message that managed to transcend the scandal already swirling around the presidency. This year, the president returned to the House of Representatives to interrupt the impeachment trial that was being held in the opposite chamber. Once again, Mr. Clinton seemed all but oblivious to the drama unfolding around him as he appeared before the court about to sit in judgment on him, the U.S. Senate, and before the American people at large. In his speech, Mr. Clinton made it clear that he had no intention of bowing before the scandal. Instead, he has every intention of leading the country to the end of his term.
His reasoning is hard to fault. The United States is currently in the midst of its longest period of economic expansion since World War II. Unemployment is at historic lows, and the budget last year yielded a surplus of $70 billion, a surplus that is projected to continue into the foreseeable future. As a result, Mr. Clinton enjoys record high approval ratings from the American public, the spectacle of the Senate trial notwithstanding. According to one opinion poll, a stunning 81 percent say that his presidency has been a success.
As he did last year, the president seeded his speech with a host of small initiatives. That is a wise strategy at a time when more than half of Americans seem to believe that the country is heading in the right direction. If Mr. Clinton has a vision of the country, it is of a smaller, more efficient government, capable of touching the lives of ordinary citizens without leaning too heavily on them. It is, oddly enough, a Republican vision of government, and the president’s “purloining” of this notion is partly responsible for the GOP’s animus toward Mr. Clinton.
The most ambitious element of the president’s speech was his proposal to use $2.7 trillion, or two-thirds of the surplus that is projected over the next 15 years, to save Social Security. If there is to be a battle over policy, it will be fought over Mr. Clinton’s pledge “to save Social Security first.” His position contrasts with that of the Republican Party, which would rather return some of the savings to the public in the form of tax cuts.
The call to shore up Social Security is a popular one. Mr. Clinton’s proposal to invest some of the Social Security funds in the stock market is more questionable. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan immediately challenged the wisdom of having the government invest in the market; his remarks were echoed by Republicans. Their concerns are legitimate. Conflicts of interest are likely, and political manipulation of the market is possible.
Although the speech focused primarily on domestic issues, the president had much to say on foreign affairs and other matters of concern to Japan. Mr. Clinton has proposed a huge expansion in defense spending — a call that was endorsed by the Republicans. The package included $6.6 billion in outlays for an antimissile defense system. Some of that technology would be incorporated into the theater missile defense system that is now expected to be deployed in Japan by 2007.
Of equal concern to this country is Mr. Clinton’s trade policy. The president called for a new round of world trade negotiations to “tear down barriers, open markets and expand trade.” At the same time, Mr. Clinton warned Japan that if its steel exports “are not reversed, America will respond.” A shot has been fired. Trade issues are likely to move to the forefront of U.S. policy in the months ahead, especially if the U.S. economy slows as anticipated. Japanese policymakers need to be prepared for a resurgence of the trade frictions that have dogged the bilateral relationship in the past.
The president mentioned a host of other issues in which Japan has an interest. He called for a 70 percent increase in spending to help Russia dismantle its nuclear weapons and to find new employment for the Russian scientists who used to be engaged in military research. Those programs deserve Japanese support as well. He lashed out at China’s recent backsliding on human rights and vowed to continue the efforts to contain Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
All in all, it was a masterful performance. The real question, however, is whether his antagonists in the Congress are prepared to move on his agenda items, or whether they prefer the partisan bickering that seems to dominate Washington politics today. The American people have made their preferences clear. The rest of the world will soon know if those voices are being heard.
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