U.S. President Bill Clinton delivered his eighth, and perhaps final, State of the Union address this week. The popular perception of the president is that of a lame duck, girding for his last year in office, wounded by the scandals that have tainted his two terms in office and restrained by the distractions of the upcoming elections. If that is the case, no one told Mr. Clinton. He delivered a combative speech, set a vigorous agenda and pledged to launch a “21st-century American revolution.” If history is any guide, he might just get his way.
Mr. Clinton has every reason to take the offensive. With one year remaining in office, he is focused on his legacy. Barring the unforeseen, he will have presided over the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. His administration has pledged to retire the U.S. debt and that may prove to be more than empty rhetoric. Mr. Clinton has striven to bring the antagonists in Northern Ireland and the Middle East together; both efforts are proceeding, although neither is guaranteed success. Every accomplishment solidifies his place in history — and better positions Vice President Al Gore to succeed him in the November ballot, a move that the president would take as a final vindication of his term in office.
The prospect of elections should spur Congress to act. The president has proposed legislation such as tax relief for married couples, prescription-drug benefits for the elderly, legal protections for dealing with health-care providers and modest gun-control measures that respond to the public’s own concerns. Republicans cannot ignore them without running the risk of being labeled “a do-nothing Congress” during the campaign.
History offers Mr. Clinton reasons to be optimistic. In the last year of former President Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a number of legislative initiatives were passed in trade and social policy. In 1996, prior to Mr. Clinton’s last presidential campaign, bills on the minimum wage, health care and social-security reform became law. And even last year, when the president’s speech was delivered against the backdrop of impeachment proceedings, he took the offensive with his call to “save Social Security first.” That simple mantra continues to dominate the debate over the U.S. budget. The lesson is clear: Never count Mr. Clinton out.
This time, Mr. Clinton’s bid to remake the United States includes a $350 billion tax cut aimed at the middle class (offset by closing tax loopholes for corporations that will earn about $100 billion) and big spending increases for health care, education, the environment and the fight against crime. In an about-face that is sure to trigger heated debate, the president also proposed that everyone who wanted to buy a handgun must first obtain a license.
As usual, the speech was dominated by domestic issues. Mr. Clinton did, however, cast his eyes across the seas. He called for the U.S. to help Russia and China move toward greater democratization and prosperity. As part of that push, he called on Congress to pass legislation that would give Beijing permanent most-favored-nation trade status, as part of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization.
Support for China’s WTO bid was a component of the president’s renewed commitment to fight for free and fair trade. Mr. Clinton vowed that “There is only one direction for America on trade: forward, and we must keep moving forward.” We hope those words are more than just words, and that he will redouble efforts to launch a new world-trade round. His vow to find a new consensus that balances open markets with child-labor laws and protection of workers’ rights was designed to reassure troubled constituencies, but it threatens to be a political minefield. Mr. Clinton must set priorities.
The president also called for congressional action on bills to promote trade and development in Africa and the Caribbean. Legislation to ease the debt burden of the world’s poorest nations is equally important in helping them overcome the poverty that blights their future.
Citing President Theodore Roosevelt, Mr. Clinton urged his country to take the “long look ahead.” He is right. Vision is critical. But just as important is the willingness to set priorities, roll up sleeves and work with congressional Republicans to achieve those goals. Political grandstanding and offering all things to all people does the U.S. and the world a disservice. If Mr. Clinton truly hopes to burnish his legacy, he would do well to ponder America’s place in the world and spend his last year in office setting — and sticking to — a foreign policy. That would serve his country’s friends and allies best.
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