Clinton crusades to educate America

Hours after a State of the Union message promising an extra $51bn and a "national crusade" to improve America's education standards, President Clinton yesterday travelled to Georgia to promote a theme that he intends to be one of his enduring political legacies.

In a speech at Augusta state university, Mr Clinton expounded on his proposed 20 per cent increase in federal education spending, and a new system of scholarships carrying tax deductions and credits for families of students who secure above average grades in their first two years at university. Both are steps towards what the President proclaimed on Tuesday evening to be the "number one priority" for his second term - "to ensure that Americans have the best education in the world".

In sheer volume of words too, education dominated a speech half-overshadowed by events simultaneously unfolding in a Santa Monica courtroom. Education accounted for a full quarter of an hour-long address that almost certainly prefigures the style and content of next four Clinton years.

His language was sweeping and soaring, but the specifics mostly small and uncontentious, aimed at fostering the bipartisanship to which Republicans and Democrats alike are outwardly committed. His topics ranged from campaign finance reform, racial harmony and stronger communities to extended health coverage for 5 million children, and an end to "drive-by" mastectomies, whereby a woman is henceforth guaranteed 48 hours in hospital after an operation.

The reception reflected the relatively benign mood on Capitol Hill: much cheering from the Democrats, and intermittent applause from the Republicans. Only twice did the atmosphere turn slightly frosty: first when Mr Clinton denounced the constitutional amendment for a balanced budget backed by Republicans as "unnecessary and unwise", and then when he insisted the US must pay its $1bn-plus of debts and dues to the United Nations. Kofi Annan may have replaced the disliked Boutros Boutros-Ghali in New York but Congress's suspicions of the UN are scarcely diminished for that.

The President also urged "deeper dialogue" with China, and Senate ratification by 29 April of the Chemical Weapons Convention, on which some influential Republicans are stalling.

For the moment, however, Mr Clinton's star is in the ascendant. His approval ratings of 60 per cent or more will not have suffered from Tuesday evening's sober and workmanlike performance before the traditional joint session of the House and Senate, while the travails of Speaker Newt Gingrich have resurrected latent public distrust of Congress.

But the plain sailing will not last. Next week sees the start of hearings into sleazy Democratic fundraising for the 1996 campaign, involving Mr Clinton and several of his senior aides. The pledges of comity and harmony will also be tested by the forthcoming debate on the balanced budget amendment which is within a few votes of passage in both houses.

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