||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Analysis: Delay The Speech
By Stuart Rothenberg
The president should delay giving the State of the Union address.
Anyone who has attended that annual event, or even witnessed it on television, knows that it is normally a rousing event, filled with applause, cheering for the president and backslapping. It's frequently a time of celebration -- and this year, with the economy still strong, a balanced budget in sight, welfare reform and a tax cut enacted, and the country generally content with itself, the State of the Union should be a time of triumph for President Bill Clinton, as well as an opportunity for him to sketch out his agenda for the next year or two.
But the cloud that hangs over the president is very real, and Mr. Clinton cannot ignore it by appearing before Congress, his Cabinet, and the Supreme Court justices.
The Constitution, in Article II, Section 3, stipulates that the president "shall from time to time give to Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." But nothing stipulates the timing of the State of the Union, or even how it is conveyed. In fact, Thomas Jefferson sent his statement to Congress in written form, as did every president up until Woodrow Wilson.
I'm not suggesting that the president cancel the speech, however, only delay it. Washington remains consumed by a media frenzy about allegations involving Mr. Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and questions about the president's conduct and integrity only detract from what should be a speech about the state of the nation and the country's future.
The president still hasn't answered the charges that have been floating through the media. His most recent counterattack, on Monday, was nothing more than a repetition of earlier denials. Once again, he denied that "sexual relations" had taken place and insisted that he never told Ms. Lewinsky to lie. But until the president indicates in much greater detail what his relationship was with Ms. Lewinsky, it's easy -- even if not necessarily correct or fair -- to believe that his denial stems from what some say is his very narrow definition of what constitutes "sexual relations" and "lying." His response to the allegations -- basically no response -- may be the correct legal approach, but it is a terrible political decision.
My argument that the White House should delay the president's speech is not based on the assumption that the president is either guilty or innocent, but on the belief that the questions swirling around the president create an awkwardness that borders on the bizarre. How can members of Congress applaud the president wildly for his performance in office if he has perjured himself? On the other hand, if the president is innocent, his speech is likely not to receive the serious examination it deserves because the national media will spend a significant part of its time talking about the president's alleged legal and political problems instead of the speech's content.
Opponents of a delay would surely say that the president must continue to do his job as president, acting as if nothing is wrong. Only in Washington would it be "normal" to ignore the obvious.
My advice to the president is clear: Delay the speech for at least a few weeks. Many of the most titillating questions will have been answered by that time, and the president can give his speech in a more serene environment. And if things get worse for the president, Mr. Clinton can reassess the timing of his speech along with other things.