Clinton accused: President stumbles as courage fails to hide the pressu re

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The Independent Online
It was billed as the most important speech of Bill Clinton's political life. It attracted the biggest television audience ever for a State of the Union address. But, as Our Correspondent in Washington reports, Tuesday's speech served only to underline the gravity of the US President's difficulties.

No one could doubt Mr Clinton's courage under fire. He entered the Congressional Chamber with a smile. He delivered a 75-minute speech with directness and conviction. He offered a warm compliment to his wife.

Yet this normally fluent orator and political "natural" appeared to stumble twice over his words. There was no fire in his eyes. The lustre of power that has always shone from him was gone. So, despite the orchestrated applause and ovations, also missing was his exuberant delight in just being President. His professionalism as a politician carried him through.

He had - in the current Washington jargon - "a good story to tell". By luck or judgement (depending on your political allegiance), he presides over one of the most flourishing economic periods in the United States this century.

As he put it: "These are good times for Americans. We have more than 14 million new jobs. The lowest unemployment in 24 years. The lowest core inflation in 30 years. Incomes are rising and we have the highest home ownership in history.

"The welfare rolls are the lowest in 27 years, and crime has dropped for a record five years in a row. Our leadership in the world in unrivalled."

The problem was that even as he listed the indicators that fulfilled the promise of his first-term election memo, "It's the economy, stupid", and charted his plans for the year, those in attendance and television viewers across America had something else on their minds, more in the manner of "It's sex, stupid".

Over the winter recess, Mr Clinton's priority had been to rebut charges that his presidency had lost momentum and put behind him defeats from the previous political term: the rejection of his "fast-track" authority to accelerate the passage of international trade agreements, payment of back dues to the United Nations, a new subvention to the International Monetary Fund.

On Tuesday night, he not only resurrected those projects, but set out a series of new spending programmes, coupled with promises of fiscal rigour and a balanced budget by the end of next year, that were calculated to appeal to large numbers of Americans.

He pledged to "save social security" (the state pensions programme) for the baby-boom generation that's now turning 50. He promised subsidies to lighten the burden of paid child-care for people entering the workforce, more money for teachers and school-buildings, and he offered an extension of the state health programme, Medicare, to cover people who retire early.

He also took direct issue with the Republicans by saying that any revenue surplus should be used in the first instance to "save social security" and not for tax cuts, as they have argued.

To an extent, these programmes were a "wish-list" - they all require the support of a Congress where the Republicans are currently in the majority.

The fact that Mr Clinton rejected their preference for tax cuts, so drawing a clear division between the two parties in advance of this year's mid- term congressional elections, could complicate the passage of any of his spending programmes.

This, however, was not the main reason why Mr Clinton's proposals were not greeted, even by many Democrats, with the wholehearted enthusiasm that might have been expected in other years.

Before and after the speech, the talk in the corridors of the capital was only of the latest presidential sex scandal, whether the President had told the truth and whether he could survive. The late-night television shows that followed transmission of the speech were shot through with ribaldry of the most disrespectful kind.

Mr Clinton made a valiant attempt to separate his personal difficulties from his ability to function as president - and a good many of his grassroots supporters praised him for it.

In Washington, however, the politicians and chattering classes are so far refusing to do the same. The State of the Union may, as Mr Clinton said, be strong; but the state of this presidency is weak.