Clinton prepares US for a bitter tax pill

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The Independent Online
THE MEDICINE he was prescribing might have been bitter, but no television doctor had a better bedside manner. Bill Clinton is made for television. And in Wednesday night's first 'town-hall' meeting since the election, designed to prepare America for economic sacrifices ahead, he showed it.

The President's 60-minute appearance in a live, four-city hook-up from the studios of Michigan's WXYZ-TV was but the first act of the White House road show. Half an hour later, Vice-President Al Gore was fielding questions in Ontario, California. Yesterday was the turn of First Lady Hillary Clinton, star of a health-care forum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, though, belonged to a Bill Clinton half-forgotten amid the mishaps of the past three weeks. The stumbling President of gays in the military and 'nanny- gate' fame was once again the campaigner without peer, the policy wizard possessed of an uncanny gift of relating the most complicated issues to everyday lives of everyday people.

Live questions from live audiences bring out the best in him. With seamless syntax and numbing command of the facts, he switched from Bosnia to illegal handguns, from a balanced budget deficit to Haitian refugees, from the problems of the aerospace industry to health care.

Every campaign trademark was on display. There was the familiar biting of the lip, the long fingers ticking off points one by one - above all, that ability to make his interlocutor seem the most important person in the world.

Not that the questions were soft. 'How does one negotiate with war criminals?' demanded Lydija Dorkin Grahovic - clearly an interested party - of the latest US plans for a Bosnian settlement. Why, asked lawyer Kelly Cambron from Miami did he get sidetracked by the gays issue? But Katie Rapkin put the question that mattered most: what about the famous middle-class tax cut?

Mr Clinton did not duck it. Instead, he turned to the camera and told the country what it didn't want to hear. Deficit-cutting was for real and everyone would feel the pinch. He would not offer the usual 'bunch of smoke and mirrors' to pretend the problem did not exist. 'I wish I could promise that I won't ask you to pay any more,' he told Ms Rapkin. But 'I cannot tell you that I won't ask you to make any contribution to the changes we have to make'.

Plain-speaking indeed from a man famously prone to avoiding uncomfortable truths. Much of the evening had seemed a throw- back to the happier days of last autumn. But at that moment if no other, Clinton the eternal candidate became Clinton the President, preparing public opinion for the sacrifices that next week's economic address would demand.

Other answers revealed more. The proposals would both make a start on deficit reduction and stimulate investment. Taxes for wealthy individuals and businesses would go up - a message he repeated to business leaders at the White House yesterday. Far from enjoying a tax cut, the middle-class will pay more, through increased taxes on energy usage.

The reception was far from joyous. A polling organisation assembled 43 Michigan swing voters in Detroit to watch the show, each with an electronic measuring device known in the trade as a 'perception analyser'. Out of a possible 100, the President scored 70 on health care, 65 on Yugoslavia, but a lowly 41 on the economy.

(Photograph omitted)