Analysis: The state of Bill Clinton's State of the Union
By Stuart Rothenberg
January 20, 1999
WASHINGTON (January 20, AllPolitics) -- President Bill Clinton's 1999 State of the Union address was classic Clinton. It was another long laundry list of proposals, some conservative, some liberal. The president once again presented himself as an activist president who isn't standing on his laurels or hiding from congressional Republicans. And, of course, he made extensive use of props - guests in the gallery introduced to make a point or merely to evoke applause.
This was "classic Clinton" because we've all seen this before, in earlier State of the Unions. Even the president's comments to "honor" his wife, the first lady, were an echo of his remarks from his 1996 State of the Union address.
Clinton reiterated much of his party's 1997-1998 agenda when he called for more money for schools, a patients' bill of rights, efforts to reduce Greenhouse gases, a war against what he called "the tobacco lobby," and campaign finance reform. He also proposed a higher minimum wage, another Democratic old favorite.
Republicans have already started to complain that some of the president's proposals constitute the beginning of the federal government's takeover of education. They are probably right, but they'll need the states' help to counter the president's proposals, which all appear likely to win broad support.
Let's face it, who's against ending social promotion, making sure students go to summer school, requiring teachers to be competent in the subjects they teach and forcing schools to convey important information about their successes and failure to parents? The GOP may need popular governors like Tom Ridge (Pennsylvania), George Pataki (New York), John Engler (Michigan) and Tommy Thompson (Wisconsin) to come out strongly against federal interference, noting that they have taken many of the same steps. But even then, it may be hard for conservatives to blunt the appeal of the president's message.
As in the past, the president didn't completely forget about the Republicans. He talked about tax credits for stay-at-home parents, more charter schools, and more money for defense. And he opened up the door, if only just a crack, to the whole issue of the privatization of Social Security.
Clinton's 77-minute speech was so overflowing with proposals that by the time it ended it was almost hard to remember that Social Security was the first and most important proposal of the evening. In previous years, commentators criticized Clinton for this approach, complaining that the State of the Union should be more focused. But this year, most commentators simply gushed.
In his presentation, the president was as syrupy as ever. He stumbled a few times in his delivery, which is unusual for him, but he once again demonstrated that he is a skilled communicator who can be forceful yet sensitive, presidential yet down to earth. There is something for everyone in a Clinton State of the Union, and his 1999 speech was no different.
What was most notable about the speech, however, was the absence of two things - any mention of the president's personal and legal troubles, and any mention of a broad-based tax cut. I suppose that Clinton's decision to reject a tax cut gives the Republicans an opening. We'll have to wait to see how they try to take advantage of it. But they must know that if they appear to be scoring political points with their call for a 10 percent across-the-board tax cut that the president will embrace it as his own.
The Republicans surely knew that they were in a no-win situation for the State of the Union. The president's broadly popular agenda and oratory skills guaranteed Bill Clinton would have a good night.
But we are still left with questions. Will the Republicans try to co-opt parts of the president's agenda or will they be combative? And how will the 2000 presidential race be impacted by Clinton's proposals? We won't have to wait very long for some initial answers.
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