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Clinton to push twin reforms

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton said yesterday in his State of the Union address that he would push for both a health care overhaul and welfare reform as part of an ambitious congressional election-year legislative agenda, according to excepts released in advance by the White House.

'We must tackle welfare reform in 1994, yes, even as we tackle health care reform. We must do both at the same time,' Mr Clinton said.

The President also declared there would be no further defence cuts. 'The Budget I'll send to Congress draws the line. It protects the readiness and quality of our armed forces. Some people urged further cuts, but I said no,' he said.

His speech came as a new poll showed that, despite much-trumpeted embarrassments like the Whitewater affair and the bumpy search for a Defense Secretary, 60 per cent of Americans view him favourably - more than at any time since his inauguration a year ago.

According to a Washington Post/ABC News survey, the recent hullabaloo here over the President's private life, notably his financial dealings in Arkansas in the 1980s, has left the rest of the country cold. Only one in six of the electorate knows or cares about what has come to be known as 'Whitewatergate'. His job-approval rating of 56 per cent, extending even to his much-maligned foreign affairs performance, is better than almost all his predecessors at a similar point in their terms.

In all probability, the traditional annual address to a joint session of Congress will boost those figures further. The impressive ratings may mask doubts about Mr Clinton's character, but when it comes to rousing speeches, this President has proved he ranks with the best of them. The devil is in the detail.

The gap between exhortation and accomplishment still looks dauntingly wide. On the three big legislative goals set out by the President last night - health and welfare reform, and a broad new crime bill - congressional divisions cut deep and across party lines.

In his address Mr Clinton said health care and welfare reform were intertwined since millions of Americans are on welfare 'because it's the only way they can get health care coverage for their families'.

'Until we solve the health care problem we will not solve the welfare problem,' he said.

The White House's proposal on health care reform, delivered in September amid such fanfare, is now only one of three or four blueprints jostling for attention. Increasingly, there are complaints it is too complicated, too expensive, and perhaps not even necessary.

Mr Clinton must also deliver on his promise of tough action against crime, which polls suggests is now the top concern of Americans, far eclipsing even unemployment and health care. For the first time last night, he endorsed the so-called 'three strikes and you're out' principle, that after three violent offences, a criminal should be jailed for life. In endorsing the idea, Mr Clinton will deny Republican opponents ammunition they might use to paint him as soft on crime.